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Sharp Health News

Early autism detection in infants

April 14, 2017

Early autism detection in infants

The first signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) usually appear between ages 1 and 2. But according to a recent study, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could help doctors detect autism prior to an infant’s first birthday.

“Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause behavioral, communication and social challenges,” explains Dr. Ahmad Bailony, a pediatrician affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “About 1 in 68 children have been identified with ASD, and it is about 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.”

Past studies suggest that brain enlargement in certain regions can be a predictor for children diagnosed with autism. So researchers in the recent study conducted MRIs on a small group of infants to observe any apparent relation to brain enlargement and the development of the disorder. The study consisted of MRIs performed on 106 high-risk infants and 42 low-risk infants over the course of two years. As a result, it successfully predicted 15 high-risk infants diagnosed with autism at 24 months, with 80 percent accuracy.

The study compared children at high risk for developing autism, meaning they had at least one sibling with ASD, and children with little to no known risk. Siblings of children with ASD are significantly more likely to develop the condition than those without a family history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This study is unique in that MRIs are not commonly used for children, because they take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. During that time, a person must stay completely still, which can be difficult for a child, let alone an infant.

According to Dr. Bailony, this small study needs to be repeated with a larger group before conclusions are made. However, he believes that it sheds light on the ability to predict autism before social cues are observed — a very important possible outcome.

“I hope this means we can find some sort of marker where we can identify kids who are more likely to develop autism earlier on. This way, we can start treatment plans earlier,” Dr. Bailony says. “If there’s one thing that’s been shown about autism, it’s that when we detect it earlier and provide children with more intensive treatment sooner, they do better. The earlier we can start to detect these changes, the better the outcome.”

Most parents detect possible signs of autism when their children are between ages 1 and 2. According to Dr. Bailony, possible signs of autism spectrum disorder include:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Not responding to one’s own name by 12 months

Parents who are concerned that their child is not hitting developmental milestones or that their child is showing several of these signs, should consult with their child’s doctor.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Bailony for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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