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How early can you detect signs of autism, Asperger’s, and PDD?

When is there evidence of disorders on the autism/Asperger's/PDD spectrum?

By Heather Turgeon |


In my parenting group, a mom recently confessed to worrying that her newborn daughter was more interested in a ceiling fan than gazing into her loving eyes. I remember the feeling. If you frequent online mom forums, you’ve seen the inevitable concerns over smiling and other newborn social behaviors: “My baby doesn’t make eye contact while we’re nursing – what’s wrong?” or “Why does my baby smile at a moving tree branch, not me or my husband?” With the incidence of autism-spectrum disorders rising, and the well-known symptoms of social difficulties, it’s not surprising that anxiety runs high.

When Symptoms Emerge

But according to a study released last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, even though genetics play a role in autism disorders, the signs are not evident as early as previously thought. The group of researchers followed both normal-risk and high-risk babies (based on having a diagnosed sibling) and found that the children who ultimately did have some form of autism were similar to those who didn’t for most of the first year of life. At six months, they made the same eye contact, smiled, and gestured equally. Only by twelve months had the groups diverged; those who were later given an autism diagnosis made significantly less eye contact at one year and had significantly fewer social smiles by 18 months.

Difficult to Label

Autism is known to run in families, indicating that genes are at least partially responsible. For example, younger siblings of children with autism are more likely to struggle with social communication even if they don’t have the diagnosis themselves. It’s a condition with fuzzy boundaries, which is why the trend now is to speak of autism as a continuum, having multiple roots and taking on varying forms. In fact, the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will wrap autism, Asperger’s, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders into one spectrum diagnosis.

In hopes of better understanding the entire continuum, there has been a recent trend toward looking for signs of developmental delay earlier and earlier. Many researchers thought that symptoms might even be present from birth. But previous studies relied heavily on parents’ retrospective reports, which are not very accurate – our memories aren’t as clear as we think. In the current study, scientists were watching the children’s progress themselves.

It turns out that, despite many worried moms’ fearful diagnoses, most kids appear to develop typically for the better part of year one. After that, symptoms emerge and children who are delayed start to regress, showing slow declines in social behavior, though not the abrupt changes some have expected. That decline continues into the children’s preschool years.

Clearly we still have much to learn about the autism spectrum – the fact that we haven’t even sorted out how to describe and group the disorder is testament to that. It’s a heterogeneous group: some struggle with subtle social cues, others with major cognitive impairment and very little language, and still others with varying degrees in between. Understanding the full picture is a tall order, but piecing together when and how the symptoms unfold will be an important step.

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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12 thoughts on “How early can you detect signs of autism, Asperger’s, and PDD?

  1. 2 Spectrum Boys says:

    Next time try using more than one source when you’re writing about a subject of this importance. Garbage.

  2. wtf says:

    Wow. I have to agree – this is the most unhelpful article ever. And the reel-in from Strollerderby called it ‘comprehensive.’ What a crock.

  3. ILiana says:

    Are you serious? This article has NO USEFUL content! I think I am this close to stop following Babble. Content keeps getting worse and worse. Spend more time researching and writing instead of updating your FB status or tweets 10 times a day! What a disappointment

  4. DaraM says:

    For a more thorough description of the signs of autism, head over the the Autism Speaks page on the matter.

  5. Anonymous says:

    like this article! It’s useful and the picture is gorgeous!

  6. sp says:

    agreed. this is a crap article, and it’s completely lame that the strollerderby link called it comprehensive. I actually linked through because I couldn’t believe it was the same lame article I had seen earlier!!

  7. Deb Auerbach says:

    I really liked this article. I think the thing that most comments seem to be adamantly against is the article’s inability to sum up autism’s cause and predict that this urine test heralds a soon-to-be cure. But to me, that’s the point of the article. Autism is far more complex than can be summed up in a single article, urine test, etc. I mean, the DSM has Asperger’s, autism, and PDD on the same spectrum. WTF?

    We should spend less time bashing the messenger who says “it’s complex and will take time” and more time at places like:

    Thank you for the article.

    PS – ILana I searched twitter for the author’s name. (I can use more science in my day-to-day) Couldn’t find anything. Where are you getting her tweets?

  8. speciallyforu57 says:

    College Living for Students with Learning Disabilities, Executive functioning Deficits, Autism Spectrum Disorders (including Autism, Aspergers, and PDD-NOS)

    For students with special needs, life after high school is full of possibilities, including college.

    Finding the right college program for students with autism spectrum disorders, Aspergers, nonverbal learning disorder, ADD/ADHD and other learning disabilities is vital for a college students transition into independent adulthood. The right program should provide support for each students unique needs and goals.

    With the help of New Directions, young adults with learning disabilities are experiencing independence for the first time in their lives. Some of our clients pursue collegiate endeavors and some pursue vocational training/tracks. New Directions helps students attend universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools.

    For more information, go to or call 954-571-5102 to contact Dr. Drew Rubin, Ph.D.

  9. Melissa Lowry says:

    Interesting read…

  10. Parag Shah says:

    All of the autism symptoms exhibited by most autistic children and many autistic adults stem from the inability to perceive the world the way you or I perceive that world. Senses are often heightened, making lights, colors, sounds, smells, and tastes frightening and unbearable in some cases.

  11. reader says:

    My blog has posts on signs of learning disabilities in young children:

  12. babis says:

    I don’t know why some of the earlier commenters are so angry. I for one was glad to read an article based in science rather than vaccine conspiracy theories. I guess some people don’t care for science because it doesn’t provide all the answers for them. Keep up the good work.

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