Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in infants
A common question new parents ask us at The Quirky Kid Clinic is ‘What do we need to look out for in relation to an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?’. The following article will discuss what ASD is, the diagnosis of ASD, and what to look out for if you have developmental concerns for your child.
What is ASD?
ASD is a developmental disability characterised by marked differences in social interactions, deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication skills, restricted and repetitive interests/behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. It appears in infancy, and the symptoms and severity differ from individual to individual.
The severity of an ASD presentation can range from ‘Level 1 requiring support’ through to ‘Level 3 requiring very substantial support. When ASD is diagnosed, it includes the inclusion or exclusion or an accompanying intellectual disability (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 52).
There is no known cure for ASD, and there is no current consensus amongst medical professionals on the precise cause of ASD. However, what is clear is that quality individualised early intervention will support children to increase skill development, communication abilities and develop flexible, adaptive behaviours (Dawson et al., 2010).
How is ASD diagnosed?
ASD has shown to be reliably diagnosed in a child as young as 18-24 months old (Charman et al., 2005). However, historically children have been more likely to have received a diagnosis closer to school age than during their toddler years (Mandell et al., 2005; Moore & Goodson, 2003).
Howlin & Moore (1997), who conducted a study of 1200 participants in the UK, reported that whilst the average age parents had any developmental concerns for their child was approximately 18 months old, for the majority of participants studied, the diagnosis did not actually occur until closer to the child turning 6 years old.
In response to ongoing research in the area of ASD diagnosis, in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics has now recommended that all children be screened for ASD at approximately 18-24 months old (Johnson & Myers, 2007).
In Australia, Williams et al. (2008) have concluded that currently, we have not matched initiatives occurring in other countries, such as the United States, in relation to early ASD diagnosis and early intervention support initiatives.
However, the Autism CRC, under the guidance of Professor Andrew Whitehouse and colleagues, are currently developing a National ‘Best Practise’ Guideline document for the diagnosis of ASD within Australia. Whilst the document has not yet been finalised, the draft submission cites the reliability of an ASD diagnosis for a child of 2 years old by a qualified professional. Although, it is still most common in Australia for children to receive a diagnosis between 3 and 5 years old (Whitehouse et al., 2017).
A reliable diagnostic process involves identifying the child’s strengths and weaknesses via a comprehensive formal assessment which includes a child observation, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2), a parent interview, such as the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), and cognitive/developmental testing such as an IQ test or a general developmental assessment, completed by an experienced practitioner (Charman, 2010; Whitehouse et al., 2017).
Following diagnosis, access to individualised early intervention to increase developmental deficits and decrease challenging behaviours can make a huge difference in your ASD child’s developmental pathway.
Early Signs to look out for in infants
Identifying characteristics of ASD in a child younger than two years old can be difficult. Concerns may arise due to the ‘absence’ of behaviours considered ‘normal’ development and the ‘presence’ of behaviours considered ‘abnormal’ development.
Developmental milestones occur across age ranges, so your child may be ahead or behind their peers for milestones such as crawling, walking, and early verbal and nonverbal language development.
Listen to your ‘gut instinct’ as a parent. Consider seeking help from your Child Psychologist or Paediatrician if your 12-month-old infant is not demonstrating the following behaviours, either as an emerging skill that is continuing to progress, or once learnt, does not demonstrate these behaviours consistently across multiple environments (Boyd et al., 2010; Charman, 1998):
- Responding to their name, or the sound of a familiar voice, by turning their head and referencing the person who spoke or the direction from where the voice came from;
- Referencing a familiar person with eye contact, such as smiling in reciprocation to being smiled at, at times such as feeding, and or when playing ‘peek a boo’ like games;
- Demonstrating joint attention, such as referencing a favourite toy or food, then referencing a familiar person, then looking back towards the item of interest as if to say, “pass it to me”, or “can I have more”;
- Babbling or making noises to get a familiar adults attention;
- Developing an imitation repertoire such as waving and clapping, and or including the imitation of a familiar person’s facial expressions and movements;
- Demonstrating reciprocal interest and enjoyment in play, such as tickles, ‘peek a boo’ like games and cause and effect toys, coordinating eye contact to indicate “more”;
- Tracking objects or familiar people visually around the room and or following a familiar person’s gestures, such as pointing to an object;
- Coordinating gestures to communicate, such as pointing at an object to initiate communication or waving goodbye;
- Positively responding to cuddling and or reaching out to be picked up.
Remember that your child may, like all individuals, experience good days and bad days. Your child’s development will occur in spurts and patterns, and it is best to evaluate your child’s development by considering the consistency and frequency of these emerging skills.
If you feel a particular skill is lacking, spend the time to practise the behaviour with your child, ensuring that you are providing attention and praise for your child’s attempts at demonstrating the behaviour. If the skill does not start to develop or your child responds negatively to your attempts to model and teach the skill, then seek help from your Child Psychologist or Paediatrician.
Commence an individualised early intervention program as soon as possible. Whether your child has a formal diagnosis or not, it is advisable to start intervention as soon as you suspect that your child’s development is not progressing at the level expected for their age rather than following a wait and see approach.
Here at The Quirky Kid Psychology Clinic, our experienced team of Psychologists are more than happy to meet with you to discuss any concerns you have about your child’s development and behaviour.
We always start with a parent only consultation to ensure that we get a thorough understanding of your child’s developmental history and a sense of your families identity, history and cultural dynamics. From here, we provide an individualised case plan dependent on your child and families needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact our friendly reception on (02) 9362 9297.
View article references
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