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America’s Pediatricians Urged to Heed Autism’s Earliest Warning Signs

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends first screening for autism at 18 months, doctors attending the academy’s annual conference are being urged to pay attention to even earlier signs – especially in babies and toddlers who have an older sibling affected by autism.

Because autism tends to run in families, investigators in Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium closely track the development of babies and toddlers with an older sibling on the spectrum. By doing so, they determined the extent of the higher autism risk shared by “baby sibs.” One in five, or 20 percent, will develop autism. In addition, their identification of autism’s earliest red flags has improved physicians’ ability to screen for and diagnose autism at earlier ages.

At this week’s conference, pediatrician Patty Manning-Courtney highlighted the consortium’s identification of these subtle early warning signs in 12- to 18-month olds. They include poor eye contact, limited or no social smiling, delayed babbling and repetitive behaviors. (See “Learn the Signs.”) Dr. Manning-Courtney is the director of the Kelley O’Leary Center at Cincinnati Children’s hospital – a member of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

“Though diagnosing autism remains a challenge in very young children, these early indicators clearly warrant attention,” she said. “Even children too young for a reliable autism diagnosis can benefit from the earliest possible intervention.”

Many pediatricians are understandably concerned about overburdening the limited resources for children with autism, she acknowledged. “But children at high risk should have a lower threshold for referral.”

The strongest risk indicator of all, she added, is family concern. “For all our checklists and tests, our most sensitive indicator of autism is the parent who says ‘I’m concerned.’”

Alycia Halladay, Autism Speaks senior director for environmental and clinical sciences, welcomed Dr. Manning-Courtney’s remarks. “It’s crucial that this information reach the American Academy of Pediatrics,” she said. “As trusted health care providers, these doctors have the greatest interaction with our families. They need to be aware of autism’s earliest signs and symptoms, as they’re the ones parents seek out when questions or issues arise.” 

Earlier this year, Dr. Manning-Courtney discussed the key steps in a comprehensive evaluation for autism at Autism Speaks National Conference for Families and Professionals.
View her video blog
here.