Researchers say they have identified “the earliest signs of autism ever observed.” The study, published this week in the scientific journal Nature, makes me feel both hopeful and mournful, because I can’t help but wish my own kids’ autism had been diagnosed earlier.
“Basically from birth, (all) babies will look more at the eye part of faces,” lead researcher Warren Jones, Ph.D. told CNN.
At about four to six weeks, the attention to eyes decreases, then picks up again in typical babies at two months, explained Dr. Jones, who is the Director of Research for the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The researches found that in the first six months of life, there was a decline in the amount of looking at other people’s eyes in children who later are diagnosed with autism. In contrast, researchers said that babies who did not develop autism looked increasingly at people’s eyes until about 9 months old, and then kept their attention to eyes fairly constant into toddlerhood.
The babies who showed the sharpest decline in eye contact developed the most severe autism, the researchers found.
“Kids whose eye fixation falls off most rapidly are the ones who later on are the most socially disabled and show the most symptoms,” said Dr. Jones in The New York Times. director of research at the autism center. “These are the earliest known signs of social disability, and they are associated with outcome and with symptom severity. Our ultimate goal is to translate this discovery into a tool for early identification” of children with autism.
As the parent of two kids on the spectrum, this study is huge to me. The first reason is that early diagnosis is incredibly helpful in getting kids and their families services that will help them for the rest of their lives. My son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age four; his sister wasn’t diagnosed until age 10. Yes, they’re two different people, but I see a real difference in how much more easily our son has learned certain things, because he got to learn them at an earlier age.
Another reason early infancy studies are important is that while many parents of autistic kids say that their kids were typically developing up to a certain point (i.e., vaccinations), one study showed that even with those kids, videos of the child’s first birthday party showed telltale differences. Identifying signs of autism in early infancy can hopefully help us move away from the fear of vaccinations.
But mostly I think that the earlier you can get a diagnosis for your child, the better a parent you can be. Besides getting our kids help — like social skills instruction, occupational therapy, and help with things like anxiety — the most important thing that happened when our kids were diagnosed on the spectrum is that my husband and I were able to be much better parents to our kids. I cringe when I think of it now, but before our son was diagnosed, I told him at least once to “look me in the eye when I’m talking to you.”
He can’t. Or, he can, but if he looks me in the eye, then he can’t also hear what I’m saying. It’s too much input. Thanks to our son’s diagnosis and books like John Elder Robison’s Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s, we communicate so much better with our son.
Our daughter was diagnosed well after our son. She had already gotten diagnoses of ADHD (primarily inattentive type) and anxiety, and although I had commented to at least two different psychiatrists that she shared a lot of “quirks” with her younger brother, my concerns were dismissed. Although she did well academically, everything was a struggle for her, and she became very depressed during fourth grade.
She felt like a monster. She thought she was stupid. She knew to laugh when other kids laughed, so that no one would know she didn’t get the jokes. Other girls moved on to discussing Justin Bieber and Justice clothes, and my daughter still wanted to pretend to be a cat. She was left in the dust.
We argued constantly. I asked our pediatrician about autism; he suggested Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I didn’t think she was being oppositional or defiant; I thought maybe we were speaking a different language. We had her hearing checked innumerable times.
Eventually, everything came to a head during one week when I realized, for sure, that Asperger’s explained everything. During that week, my daughter brought up something we had discussed before: that some scientists think that ADHD is just the beginning of the spectrum.
“Mommy, I think I might be a couple notches over from there,” she said.
It took over a year, and a lot of pushing on my part to get the evaluation done, but sure enough, our daughter has Asperger’s. While the diagnosis was something we celebrated, it’s hard not to mourn the years that I didn’t know. Just this week, she started crying and said how she wishes that we had known earlier, because she feels like her brother has had an advantage: I’m more patient with him than I was with her at this age. She doesn’t resent me for it, but we both acknowledge that I am, frankly, a better mother to her today than I was five years ago.
It breaks my heart. I can deal with it, and I know that we have always, always done the best we could for our kids with the information we had at hand. And our daughter gets it that as a parent, I change and grow just like she does. It should be that way. I try to be a better mom every day than I was the day before. For us, understanding the way our kids’ minds work has been the key.
But still, it’s really, really hard not to wonder “if only.” If only we had had some inkling of this earlier. If only we had known about our kids’ autism earlier, they would have had easier, less stressful, happier early childhoods. The idea that we might be able to see autism signs at 6 weeks of age fills my heart with hope, but also with sadness. Because if only.
Autism and Asperger’s: Celebrating My Daughter’s Diagnosis (on stark. raving. mad. mommy.)
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