Can Parents Detect High-Functioning Autism In Their Infant?

“Are there some symptoms of high functioning autism that can be observed in infants? My daughter has a son, 7 months old, and she is worried that he may have this condition. Is it too early to tell?”

High-Functioning Autism (ASD level 1) consists of problems with socializing and communication with others. While the average age of diagnosis of is around age 7 to 9, recent research regarding early warnings signs may enable clinicians to diagnosis prior to 12 months.

Many infants and toddlers exhibit signs or symptoms of HFA from time to time; however, this may reflect normal child behavior. Failure to meet expected developmental milestones doesn’t necessarily reflect a symptom of the disorder.

With these facts in mind, some symptoms of HFA may be detected in infancy:
  • Some kids with HFA fail to attain certain “expected” milestones within the first year (e.g., unassisted standing, crawling, simple gestures including waving, etc.).
  • An infant with HFA may fail to interact appropriately with his or her environment (e.g., avoid eye contact and interactions, prefer solitude, avoid attention or affection, etc.).
  • Later in infancy, some may show problems reacting with activities and objects (e.g., over react - or fail to react at all). 
  • Initial signs of repetitive behaviors may emerge at this time (e.g., rocking).
  • Babies with HFA can exhibit abnormal methods of non-verbal communication (e.g., failure to look another person in the eye and have appropriate facial expressions, failure to exhibit predictable body postures or gestures). 
  • They may not exhibit a social smile until much later on in life. 
  • Infants no the autism spectrum may totally ignore the voices of the parents or strangers, or conversely cry and become irritable when confronted with any form of social contact. 
  • The child’s first words are often unusual. For example, more complex words, such as "mountain" or "sheetrock" may emerge before simpler words, such as "Mama" or "Dada."
  • They may become obsessed with complex topics (e.g., intricate patterns or music).
  • These kids may be unable to focus on any other aspect of the environment once they notice the object of their obsession. 
  • Uncoordinated movements are a common symptom in HFA. Kids with the disorder may be seen moving clumsily and be unable to coordinate movements of the hands or feet. They may exhibit an odd posture or have a stiff, rigid gait. In addition, they may show a delay in learning how to crawl or walk, and can exhibit a delay in fine motor movements (e.g., grasping an object).
  • Infants with HFA appear to demonstrate abnormal reflexes versus “normal” kids. They tend to exhibit a persistence of the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex beyond their fourth month of life (when the reflex generally disappears). When infants 4 months and older without HFA roll over, they turn in the same direction that their head is facing. Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex is the opposite of this (i.e., the infant turns over in the opposite direction to where the head is facing). 
  • They may lack reflexes that should develop by a certain age, such as the head-verticalization reflex at 6 to 8 months. An infant who has developed this reflex will maintain his head in a vertical position when his body is tilted. Infants with HFA show delays in this reflex (i.e., their heads will tilt along with their bodies).

Detecting HFA is crucial in improving the long-term outcomes for these kids. Prevention of later life problems may be avoided with early intervention. Therefore, knowledge of early symptoms of the disorder in infants remains paramount in mitigating outcomes.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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