How Autism Is Detected in Infants

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Detecting autism early

If you are noticing some behaviors that don't seem quite right with your infant and wonder if she may have autism, it's a good idea to learn about the ways autism is detected in babies. This way, when you take your baby to the specialist you'll have a good idea of what to expect and you'll be prepared to answer questions.

Ways Autism Is Detected in Infants

Early Signs of Autism

As you look over the list below, does your infant have any of the following traits?

  • Becomes rigid when picked up
  • Is very limp
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Does not grasp hair, fingers or objects in the palm of the hand
  • Does not turn head toward parents' voices (A baby as young as four months is likely to turn his head when a parent says his name.)
  • Sleep problems, often involving little or no sleep
  • Lack of facial expressions
  • Does not laugh
  • Cries excessively or does not cry at all
  • Self-stimulatory behavior such as hand flapping, banging head and repetitive movements
  • Eating issues such as problems with digestion, refusing to nurse, drink or eat, difficulty tolerating textures in food.

If so, please write them down and let the medical professional know.

Considering Genetic Predisposition

You may have even greater suspicion of the likelihood of your child having autism if she has a genetic predisposition to it. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in every 88 babies will have some form of autism, and siblings have a 20% greater chance of developing the disorder.

Researchers are currently examining infants who have siblings diagnosed with autistic disorders. The Pitt Early Autism Study (PEAS) is an example of a program that seeks to detect autism in infants. Babies as young as five months of age participate in the program. Tests include:

  • Eye tracking
  • Face recognition
  • Social interaction between mother and child
  • Social interaction between the baby and a stranger
  • Play skills

Parent questionnaires like the Childhood Autism Rating Scale are typically used in the research.

Mullen Scales of Early Learning

Some research involves using tests like the Mullen Scales of Early Learning. The Mullen Scales evaluates children from birth to age five years, eight months. The following categories are evaluated during testing:

  • Gross motor scale
  • Fine motor scale
  • Receptive language scale (Does the baby understand what is being said?)
  • Expressive language scale

The results of the test show the child's strengths and weaknesses as related to the respective categories. In addition, the test shows where the baby's skills fall in relation to babies in the same age group, noting if they are in the average, advanced or below average range.

How Autism Gets Misdiagnosed

Before you convince yourself that your baby has autism, you may want to consider some of the reasons autism gets misdiagnosed.

Differing Rates of Developmental Milestones

Each baby develops differently and while certain milestones mark typical development, some children meet the milestones during different stages. Just because a baby doesn't walk by the time he is 18 months old does not necessarily mean that he has a developmental disorder.

Splinter Skills

Some children on the spectrum may exhibit "splinter skills" making it appear that they are developing normally. She may not blow kisses or wave goodbye at 12 months but she can put together a puzzle effortlessly. Some parents may consider the fine motor skills to be an indicator that the baby is progressing well.

Focus Switched to New Skills

A baby may not use words as much while he is learning how to walk. The focus is on the gross motor skills, almost as if language development is put on the back burner while he is learning the new tasks.

Possibility of Other Medical Problems

In addition, the signs of autistic disorders in babies can mimic other conditions, specifically hearing problems. The baby may not respond to her name because she simply can't hear well. Hearing problems can interfere with language development as well.

Doctor Knows Best

The best plan is to discuss your concerns with your baby's pediatrician, even if it may appear to be insignificant. For example, if your three-month-old fails to turn her head in the direction of your voice consistently, bring it up during the next well visit. It's always good to play the better safe than sorry card when dealing with the developmental issues of your child.

In this video, doctors in the San Diego, CA area created a Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Profile Infant-Toddler Checklist for parents with a child coming in for a one year well baby checkup. Watch what the results were of the survey and how beneficial it can be to have a screening done.

There Is Hope

Please keep in mind that many babies showing developmental delays early in life turn out to catch up very well, including ones with diagnoses. It helps to get the support and guidance necessary to encourage skill mastery and social interaction as soon as possible if delays are present. In many cases, the added support is enough to get the child on track.

How Autism Is Detected in Infants