Autism: Signs to watch for in early stages

 CHICAGO-The leading pediatricians' group in the United States is making its strongest push yet to have all children screened for autism twice by age 2, warning of symptoms such as babies who don't babble at 9 months and 1-year-olds who don't point to toys.

The advice is meant to help both parents and doctors spot autism sooner. There is no cure for the disorder, but experts say that early therapy can lessen its severity.

Symptoms to watch for, and the call for early screening, come in two new reports.

They are being released by the American Academy of Pediatrics today at its annual meeting in San Francisco and will appear in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics and on the group's website,

The reports list numerous warning signs, such as a 4-month-old not smiling at the sound of mom or dad's voice, or the loss of language or social skills at any age.

Experts say one in 150 U.S. children have the troubling developmental disorder.

Autism Society Canada puts the figure at about one in 165 children.

The new reports say children with suspect cases should be treated before a formal diagnosis is made.

In Ontario, there has been no push for testing, although the provincial government has explored the feasibility of universal developmental surveillance - which includes early signs of autism - focused on 18 months as a start, said Dr. Wendy Roberts of the autism research program at the Hospital for Sick Children.

There are basic warning signs at 12 months, including babies not pointing at things of interest in attempts to get their parents to look.

Debbie Hrybinsky, president of the Toronto chapter of Autism Ontario, and parent of autistic son Matthew, 7, called the U.S. recommendations a positive step. Her son's autism was confirmed by the time he was 3.

Her son would have benefited from the guidelines being proposed in the U.S., she said.

"If we got the diagnosis sooner I think he'd be further ahead,'' Hrybinsky said last night.

Dr. Chris Johnson, co-author of the new reports and a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, said: "Parents come into your office now saying `I'm worried about autism.' Ten years ago, they didn't know what it was."

The authors caution not all children who display a few symptoms are autistic and parents should not overreact to quirky behaviour.

Just because a child lines up toy cars or has tantrums "doesn't mean you need to have concern, if they're also interacting socially and also pretending with toys and communicating well," said co-author Dr. Scott Myers, of Danville, Pa.

Recommended treatment for autism should include at least 25 hours a week of intensive behaviour-based therapy, including educational activities and speech therapy, according to the reports.

For very young children, therapy typically involves fun activities, such as bouncing balls back and forth or sharing toys to develop social skills; there is repeated praise for eye contact and other behaviour autistic children often avoid.
Lindsey Tanner