Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder as it is more accurately known today, can be caused by two major factors. The most common is genetic. In the same way that some illnesses or disorders can be passed along a family line, such as cystic fibrosis, or Down’s Syndrome, ASD functions the same way. ASD can “skip a generation,” or manifest as a very mild, higher functioning form of autism in one parent, but with the birth of the next generation, the ASD may be much more severe.
However, ASD is not only caused by genetics; there may be environmental factors at play too. While vaccines have already been ruled out as a cause of ASD, other contributing agents still pose risks. Low birth weight while the baby is growing, for example, may cause ASD, while hypoxia during childbirth, which means insufficient oxygen getting to the brain, can also lead to ASD in the baby.
This brings up the question, how do you know if a newborn has ASD? The sooner that ASD is diagnosed, the sooner concerned parents can start planning—and managing—ASD symptoms and getting treatments or therapies to help a child live a productive life. So is it possible to detect ASD in infants, and if so, how?
Lack Of Eye Contact
One of the “signature” behavioral symptoms of ASD manifests itself very early in children, and can even be detected in infancy. For many people with ASD, direct eye contact can be distressing, because it is overstimulating, providing too much information for the ASD patient to handle.
Whereas babies without ASD quickly learn to maintain eye contact in order to learn about the person they are interacting with, ASD infants will shun this. If you find that your baby momentarily maintains eye contact, and, upon realizing that eye contact has been made, avoids it, this may be an early indicator.
By the age of three, infants usually begin to develop rudimentary social skills, such as smiling to display pleasure, and indicate to adults that an experience was enjoyable and they would like a repeat of that experience. ASD infants, however, are much slower to learn this type of social signaling, either delaying it or in some cases, never learning it at all.
If your infant is not smiling or laughing by three months, this is not necessarily a positive indicator of ASD, but if it does run in the family, and it is accompanied by other symptoms, take note.
Poor Eye Tracking
The first “point of contact” for infants is the eyes, and under normal circumstances, infants will welcome visual input and always be hungry for it, actively engaging with sights, such as brightly colored toys, and tracking the movement.
For ASD infants, however, too much sensory input from the eyes may be distressing or overstimulating. If you present toys to your infant and move them around, and the infant only briefly registers the movement then refuses to watch further movements, this could be another indicator.
Few To No Noises
Infants will hear and attempt to imitate their parents as they speak, resulting in babbling as they exercise their voices and begin to form language skills. It’s not unusual for young babies to babble frequently, and even respond to speech with babbling.
Lack of traditional communication skills is another hallmark of ASD. An ASD child may be reluctant to engage in speaking or begin at first, then at some point, stop and regress. Some children may be slow to learn to verbalize, so don’t take a lack of it as positive confirmation that ASD is present unless there are other contributing factors.
Repetition in verbalizing impacts on babies eventually, and at some point, the constant repetition of their name, paired with parental interactions, will cause them to associate the sound parents make with themselves, and they begin to understand that they have a name.
With ASD children, often, this association is never formed, or it is entirely ignored. If you find that your infant continues not to respond when called by name, file this way for further evaluation. On average, infants should be responding to their name by nine months at the latest.
No Conventional Social Interaction Or Anticipation
Once again, infants tend to make certain associations that they look forward to expressing quickly. Once infants are repeatedly picked up, for example, they may learn to raise their arms as a signal of interaction that they wish to be picked up. If you play games, such as “peek a boo,” they anticipate the game and smile or laugh in advance.
ASD infants will remain unresponsive to these social signals and not give them. Normal infant development will show signs of anticipation and interaction 6-9 months after birth. If your family has a history of autism, or you notice your child is showing many of these behaviors, think about bringing the child in for an ASD evaluation. The earlier you are informed about the situation, the better prepared you will be to manage it.