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Infant Head Lag May Signal Autism

Motor Development Delay at 6 Months a Red Flag, Study Suggests
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 16, 2012 -- Infants who show developmental delays in head and neck muscle control may be at increased risk for autism, a new study suggests.

Though preliminary, the findings are among the first to suggest that delays in motor development during infancy may be an early warning sign of autism.

However, the findings are preliminary and aren't ready for use in diagnosing autism spectrum disorders.

The research will be presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Toronto.

Head Lag: Early Sign of Autism?

A baby typically should be able to control her neck muscles by around 4 months of age, so that when she is pulled from a lying to sitting position her head should remain in line with her torso and not flop back.

Delays in reaching this developmental milestone have been observed in premature babies and in those with cerebral palsy, but the new research now links the trait to autism.

The researchers studied infants at high risk for autism because they had an older sibling diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

In one study group, about 40 children were tested for head lag at 6, 14, and 24 months, followed by testing for autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 30-36 months.

According to the findings:

  • Ninety percent of the infants later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder exhibited head lag when they were 6 months old.
  • About half (54%) of children with any social or communication delay showed evidence of head lag as infants.
  • Thirty-five percent of children who appeared to be developing normally between 30 and 36 months exhibited head lag at 6 months of age.

In a second study group that compared high-risk babies to those with a low risk for autism, 15 (75%) high-risk infants and seven (33%) low-risk infants showed evidence of head lag at 6 months of age.

Not all high-risk children in the study with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experienced head lag as infants, and not all infants with head lag developed autism.

Roughly a third of 2 1/2- to 3-year-olds who did not have ASD showed evidence of head lag at 6 months of age.

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