The idea that an autistic child could be diagnosed as an infant—and therefore be able to get the earliest treatment possible—is intriguing to experts in the field.
A new study of babies who'd been placed in the neo-natal intensive care unit after birth was originally intended to research infant development.
"This was not meant to be an autism study, but they went back and said: 'We have some features here that can differentiate the kids with autism compared with kids who don't,’” said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.
Some of the children who were later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder had developmental anomalies as young babies—differences in muscle tone and how they responded to noises and visual patterns. The differences were subtle, which experts say could not be identified by a parent and it's too early to generalize these findings to healthy newborns.
"These were babies who were sick enough that they ended up in an intensive care unit and then were followed afterwards to monitor their development," Wiznitzer said.
These red flags could be used in future infant autism studies. The hope is to find solid autism markers that doctors can look for.