A recent study of infants who were treated in the neonatal intensive care unit at birth reveals that autism symptoms are present in very young babies.
The usual “red flags” that warn of early signs of autism are a baby’s failure to make eye contact or to smile or otherwise react to parents or caregivers. A recent study, though, conducted by the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities and published in the September, 2009, issue of Pediatrics, has found other symptoms of autism.
The study consisted was of babies who were in the neonatal intensive care unit after birth, and found that those children who were later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have abnormal muscle tone and differences in visual processing than those who were not later diagnosed with ASD.
Although parents are usually the first to notice the more traditional signs of autism in children, these subtle differences in muscle tone and visual processing were so subtle as to be something parents would probably not have spotted.
The study was of 28 babies who had spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit who were then later diagnosed with ASD. These babies were matched with a control group of 112 babies who did not have ASD. The behavior of both groups was tested at 1 and 4 months and then periodically until the children were about 2 years old.
At the one month evaluation, the infants later diagnosed with ASD were “more likely to show ‘persistent neurobehavioral abnormalities’” and about 40% of those with ASD showed abnormalities in their visual tracking of objects. Also, more than fifty percent of the babies later diagnosed with ASD had either too floppy or too rigid arm tone. Of the babies who developed normally, only 22 % had this abnormal tone.
At the 4 month evaluation the infants who were later diagnosed with autism preferred showed a preference for higher amounts of visual stimulation.
Study co-author Ira Cohen, chair of the psychology department at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, states that the preference for visual stimulation “fits in anecdotally with what we see later on. Kids with autism like looking at moving things in front of their eyes, such as flapping hands or following contours.”
The 7 to 10 month evaluations revealed that those babies later diagnosed with ASD showed a decline in motor and thinking skills, and by about 13 months, there was an obvious divergence in the development of the two groups.
While the study is significant in its findings and implications for early intervention, the researchers stress that the study group was of infants from the NICU and that additional studies need to be performed on children who were born healthy at full term.
Regardless, the authors of the study conclude and reiterate that early autism intervention – by age 2 – is the best course of action for a positive outcome.
Read more about the study here.