Autism is generally thought to be a complex genetic disorder that affects early brain development. Over the past decade, scientists have been able to pinpoint some of the genetic abnormalities associated with autism. However, a number of environmental factors may also increase a child’s risk for autism, including advanced parental age, premature birth, low birth weight, and trauma during birth.
There is no medical test for autism, which can make early detection challenging. Another difficulty is that the earliest warning signs are often the absence of developmental appropriate behaviours, rather than the occurrence of abnormal behaviour. However, there are a number of early warning signs that parents can look for in the social, communication, and behavioural developmental areas.
The earliest warning signs may be evident in the social development of very young children. Babies (2-3 months of age) will look at faces, turn toward voices, make eye contact, and smile at caregivers. As the child gets older, he or she will respond to their name, pick up and show interesting items to caregivers, and imitate the actions of caregivers. A child who does not display these behaviours early on may be at risk.
Other warning signs are evident in the communication development of children, including failure to reach out to be picked up by caregivers, lack of babbling, and lack of attempts to gain the attention of caregivers.
In behavioural developmental domain, early warning signs may include fixed interest on a single toy or object, repetitive motor movements, difficulty adapting to changes in routine, extreme reactions to environmental events (such as sounds, sights, and smells), or no reaction to environmental events.
Parents should consult with a medical professional if their child does not display the following milestones (http://www.helpguide.org/articles/autism/autism-symptoms-and-early-signs.htm):
By 6 months: No big smiles or joyful expressions
By 9 months: No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions
By 12 months: Does not respond to name
By 12 months: No babbling
By 12 months: No social gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving
By 16 months: No spoken words
We encourage parents to seek early intervention if they have concerns about their child’s development, rather than taking a “wait and see” approach. We know that the brain is most plastic, and most adaptable to change, in very young children. For this reason, early intervention is likely to produce superior long-term outcomes for young children who display developmental delays.