Getting autism diagnosed early

If a parent suspects developmental delays in their child, they should act immediately to find out if there is a problem and what it may be. (AP Photo)

Kids with autism and autism spectrum disorders (like Asperger’s Syndrome) can be identified as early as age 14 months – opening the door to family support and earlier interventions to help them reach their full potential. Yet despite the 78 percent increase in diagnosed autism in kids since 2002, experts say many could be recognized sooner – and parents can help.

According to Coleen Boyle, director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, “the most important thing for parents to know is that it's critical to act quickly if there is a concern about your child's development.” Speaking to reporters recently when the CDC released new statistics on kids on the autism spectrum, she had this advice: “Don't wait. Talk to your child's doctor about your concerns. Call your local early intervention program or school system for free assessment and remember, you don't need a diagnosis to get services.  It's never too late to get help for your child.”

So how can you be sure your child – and others – get the earliest possible help? Take these three steps:

#1: Play with your baby. Researchers at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md., recommend parents play with their babies and look for 10 basic warning signs. If you spot one or more, don’t panic. Talk with your pediatrician about what to do next. The signs:


  • Rarely smiles when approached by caregivers
  • Rarely tries to imitate sounds and movements others make, such as smiling and laughing, during simple social exchanges
  • Delayed or infrequent babbling
  • Does not respond to his or her name with increasing consistency from 6 - 12 months
  • Does not gesture to communicate by 10 months
  • Poor eye contact
  • Seeks your attention infrequently
  • Repeatedly stiffens arms, hands, legs or displays unusual body movements such as rotating the hands on the wrists, uncommon postures or other repetitive behaviors
  • Does not reach up toward you when you reach to pick him or her up
  • Delays in motor development, including delayed rolling over, pushing up and crawling


#2: Keep an eye on your child’s development as he or she grows. You’ll find a comprehensive list of age-specific autism warning signs for ages 2 months to 5 years on the Web site of the Autism Science Foundation. Among the signs worth mentioning to your doctor are a 2-month-old who doesn’t smile or respond to loud sounds or a 5-year-old who’s losing verbal and social skills or is easily withdrawn. Not sure whether the behavior you’re seeing is a red flag? It’s always worth talking with your doctor about it. You can also watch what these behaviors look like thanks to the ingenious video glossary of autism warning signs on the Web site of the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

#3: If you’re the parent of a child (or adult) on the autism spectrum, contribute to an online research study. Even though pediatricians and family doctors are increasingly aware of developmental gaps that mean a child should be evaluated, getting a diagnosis can be time-consuming and complicated. An evaluation can take hours; some parents must wait up to a year before getting an appointment with a trained professional for an evaluation.

Now, researchers from Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School have developed a new 7-question survey for autism that can be administered in minutes. So far, it’s been studied in nearly 3,000 people and shown to be as accurate as the current, 93-question exam. But, the researchers say, it’s not yet ready for prime time. They’ve asked for input from parents and caregivers of people with formally-diagnosed  autism to take the confidential survey online in order to help the scientists further validate it. The researchers have also asked parents and caregivers to upload a video, which will be studied to help make video diagnosis possible in the future – a big help for families who live far from major medical centers or can’t get an appointment quickly.

"We believe this approach will make it possible for more children to be accurately diagnosed during the early critical period when behavioral therapies are most effective," says Dennis Wall, one of the test’s developers. “The road to a clinical diagnosis of autism is slow. We believe we can speed up the process, but we need your help.”

If you have a child with an autism spectrum disorder, what advice would you give other parents about getting a diagnosis? Would a faster “test” help?