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Spotting the signs of autism

Most parents look toward their baby’s developmental milestones with anticipation. The video camera is charged and ready to capture newly learned skills like playing peekaboo or speaking those first precious words. But for parents of children with autism, those moments are agonizingly delayed or never come at all.

Autism spectrum disorder is a brain condition associated with developmental delays and disabilities. People with autism generally have problems with social skills, language and behavior. They may not make eye contact, talk, play or interact with others. If you read a story, a child with autism is unlikely to point to the pictures. Some perform odd repetitive movements such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping or seem unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch. About 40 percent of children with autism do not speak at all.

Experts estimate three to six of every 1,000 children have autism, with the disorder three to four times more common in boys. Its early signs often appear by age 18 months. If your baby fails to show any of these developmental signs, talk to your pediatrician about further evaluation:

  • big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by age 6 months or thereafter
  • babbling or cooing by 12 months
  • gesturing, pointing or waving by 12 months
  • saying single words by 16 months
  • saying two-word phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • ability to remember learned language or social skills

Older children with autism may display these behaviors:

  • a failure to respond to his or her own name
  • a resistance to cuddling and holding
  • a preference to play alone
  • sing-song or robotlike speech
  • constant movement
  • a fascination with parts of an object, like a toy train’s spinning wheels

Although there’s no cure, early diagnosis and intervention with intensive communication and behavior therapy, preferably before age 3 years, offer the best chance for improvement and learning progress.