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Autism Spotted at Age 14 Months

Early Autism Detection Widens Window for Effective Treatment
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 2, 2006 -- Autism in children can be detected as early as age 14 months, a new study shows.

Autism is rarely diagnosed before a child is 3 years old. Cutting that time in half means less precious time lost in getting autistic children the treatment they urgently need -- when it's likely to do the most good.

The new finding comes from researchers including Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the center for autism and related disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Landa tested motor, language, and visual skills in the younger siblings of autistic children. Such children are 100 times more likely to be autistic than other children.

"At 6 months of age, babies with autism were no different than anybody else," Landa tells WebMD. "By 14 months, though, kids with autism are different in both language development and motor control. They are not globally mentally retarded. Whatever is wrong with them, it influences their motor system as well as the development of their language system."

Using tests of motor and language development at age 14 months, Landa says, allowed her to predict autism in 70% of children ultimately diagnosed with the condition. The prediction isn't the same as a diagnosis. But it offers these children a chance for early treatment. And the earlier a child enters autism treatment, the better that child's ultimate outcome.

Autism expert Jana Iverson, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, calls the Landa finding "a huge step forward."

"This is a huge improvement in our ability to pick up kids who might be at risk and get them involved in early intervention," Iverson tells WebMD. "Right now, it is hard to get a reliable diagnosis before age 3. Parents feel they are missing really valuable time in getting kids involved in early intervention."

Landa and colleague Elizabeth Garrett-Mayer, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, report their findings in the June issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Parent: Child Seemed Normal

Jennifer Maloni's already had a child with autism. Dominic's odd behavior -- instead of playing with his toy cars, he'd line them up in order of size -- led to a relatively early autism diagnosis at age 21 months. At that time, her second son, Dylan, was 6 months old.

Knowing Dylan was at increased risk of autism, the Mt. Airy, Md., resident enrolled him in Landa's study when he was 13 months old. His first evaluation indicated he had autism. By age 18 months, he was diagnosed.

"Dylan was very different from Dominic -- his signs of autism were very, very subtle," Maloni tells WebMD. "If I hadn't had him in a study where they watched him for hours on end, they would not have picked up on it. I was able to get early intervention for him right away."

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