"Children with ASD are detected and treated nationally at approximately 4 years of age," say Pierce K, Gazestani VH, Bacon E, et al. Evaluation of the Diagnostic Stability of the Early Autism Spectrum Disorder Phenotype in the General Population Starting at 12 Months, JAMA Pediatrics (published online April 29, 2019). "However, we found that within the context of an early detection program, children can be reliably diagnosed with ASD several years earlier, as young as 14 months." However, the study also says that several places in the U.S. severely lack practitioners who have experience with early ASD development.

Early Diagnosis

"Accurate diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at earlier than 18 months is feasible, and there may be opportunities to test the usefulness of autism spectrum disorder treatment at an early age," continues the JAMA study. But, are there signs a parent can look for? Yes.

When and how long a baby looks at other people’s eyes during the early months offers the earliest behavioral sign to date of whether a child is likely to develop autism later, scientists report in a study published online at nature.com.

In the study, infants who later developed autism began spending less time looking at people’s eyes between 2 and 6 months of age and paid less attention to eyes as they grew older. By contrast, babies who did not develop autism later on looked increasingly at people’s eyes until about 9 months old, and then kept their attention to eyes fairly constant into toddlerhood.

Babies whose eye fixation fell off most rapidly were the ones who later on were the most socially disabled and showed the most symptoms of autism. That an early indicator of autism may be the length of time a baby will look at someone could one day translate into a tool for early identification of children with autism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the diagnosis of autism has increased from one child in 150 in 2002 to one in 88 in 2008. The reasons are unclear, although some factors could be greater awareness of the disorder and a growing number of older parents (children born to older parents are at a higher risk for ASDs, or Autism Spectrum Disorders).