Two recent studies found evidence indicating signs of autism spectrum disorder could be identified in children earlier than researchers once thought, revealing that children under 12 months may display signs of the condition.

Both studies, led by Dr. Hanna A. Alonim from the Mifne Center for Early Intervention in the Treatment of Autism along with other partners, were published in December in the International Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatal Care.

If doctors and researchers are able to identify signs of autism early, they’re able to get a head start on therapeutic intervention, Alonim said about the studies, which could lessen the severity of autism spectrum disorder.

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“These two studies confirm that there is a window of opportunity and it makes complete sense that early detection and intervention will affect neuroanatomical development components at a stage which is most influential for the rapidly developing brain, even to the extent that the full-blown manifestation of autism can be prevented from escalation,” Alonim said.

The first study of the pair examined a group of 110 children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 2 and 3. Children were from the United States, Israel, Australia and Europe. Researchers were able to select children who had been video recorded through the first year of their lives before their parents had noticed any signs of autism.

Researchers also asked parents questions, including when they noticed that their child had a developmental difference, who noticed the difference and how they reacted. Then, teams of researchers sat down and reviewed the footage of the children during their infancy to try to identify signs of autism, as reported in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They study observed the following traits:

• Lack of eye contact
• Lack of reaction to the presence/ voice of parents
• Excessive passivity
• Motor developmental delay
• Excessive activity
• Refusal to eat
• Aversion to touch
• Accelerated growth of head circumference

According to the data, 89% of the children showed early signs associated with autism from 5 to 15 months of age, indicating that the condition can be identified earlier in a child’s life than previously anticipated.

The study also acknowledged that autism didn’t have a textbook criteria of signs and symptoms that every child would have, so it’s critical that various combinations of symptoms, or clusters, are assessed and considered when diagnosing a child at a young age.

In the past, according to the study, there have rarely been diagnoses or examinations of children for autism under the age of 2.

“The stability of ASD diagnoses under the age of 2 is not well established and different studies have produced variable results,” the study said. “Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence regarding the possibility and necessity of early diagnosis and intervention.”

According to the study, even if children are screened and diagnosed between 12 and 24 months, children often don’t receive treatment until their second or third birthday, which could be a critical time for intervention.

So what happens if children are diagnosed earlier, and receive treatment quicker?

The second study in the pair examined how therapeutic early intervention helps children between the ages of 12 and 24 months. It compared treatment for a group of infants to toddlers to see how the intervention results differed. Treatment included a playroom, reciprocal play therapy and engagement and communication therapy. Data was divided into four categories to gauge behavior related to autism:

• Engagement
• Play
• Communication
• Functioning

At the end, researchers identified changes from pre- and post-treatment for both groups. For each category, both infants and toddlers benefited from the intervention, but one more than the other, the study found.

“Post-treatment results demonstrated significant clinical improvement for all of the four variables in both groups; however the positive impact of the treatment intervention on the younger group of infants was clearly much greater than on the group of toddlers,” the study concluded.

The two studies together indicate that while diagnosis and treatment are important at any stage, the sooner the better.

“The earlier the therapeutic intervention, the greater the likelihood of achieving an effective therapeutic outcome in ameliorating the symptoms associated with autism,” the study concluded. “Treatment in infancy is advantageous because of the plasticity of the brain at this stage. In the first two years of life the most accelerated growth of neurons takes place in the brain.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, roughly one in every 44 children has been identified to have autism spectrum disorder, and it’s four times more common among boys than girls.

The CDC offers a list of milestones for new parents to identify early signs of autism, and where to seek support if their child is showing signs.

© 2022 McClatchy
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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