Autism In Babies: What Are Its Signs And How To Manage It

Image: Shutterstock

Autism is a complex neurological disorder, mainly of communication, that causes several deviations in an infant’s behavioral traits. While it persists for a lifetime, the disorder can be detected in infancy.

What are the tell-tale signs of autism in babies? What can you do when your child is diagnosed with autism? In this article, MomJunction tells you about autism, its causes, signs, and factors that increase the risk of autism.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder, or autism as it is known, is a neurological disability that primarily affects an individual’s communication skills, social skills, and their overall behavior (1). The condition is referred to as a spectrum disorder as the symptoms can range from mild to severe form (2).

A person’s inability to socialize and communicate often affects their day-to-day life.

Back to top

How Common Is Autism Among Infants?

According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), the average prevalence of infantile autism in Asia, Europe, and North America together is 1-2%, i.e., one to two infants in 100 (3).

Autism is nearly five times more likely to occur in boys than girls. The condition can affect infants of any ethnicity, nationality, and socioeconomic groups.

Back to top

[ Read: Signs Of Aspergers In Babies ]

What Causes Autism?

The causes of autism are not known; they could be a combination of factors or a single one, and vary from person to person (4). However, several decades of research points to the following reasons:

  1. Genetic anomalies: More than 100 genes on various chromosomes can cause ASD by a single mutation. People with autism have different mutations, and a combination of a few specific mutations may also lead to autism.
  1. Environmental factors: Some people with genetic autistic mutations may not display/develop autism. However, interactions of genetic mutations with specific environmental factors not specifically known, such as infections or chemicals may result in autism eventually. That said, those with autism genes may not develop autism even after exposure to detrimental environmental conditions, owing to their unpredictability.
  1. Sporadic causes: Autism can also develop spontaneously if the infant has neurological disorders, an overgrowth of brain tissue, faulty metabolism, and autoimmune diseases. Sometimes, autism may co-exist with other disorders such as Down’s syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.

Faulty genes are often cited to be the prime reason for the development of autism among infants.

Back to top

Does Vaccination Cause Autism In Babies?

No. Vaccinations or the lack of them cannot make a baby susceptible to autism. In fact, vaccination has nothing to do with autism, which is entirely influenced by other factors (5).

Back to top

What Prenatal Factors Increase The Risk Of Autism?

There are over 50 prenatal factors that influence autism susceptibility but not causative. The following are the most notable ones (6):

  • Gestational diabetes
  • Bleeding in pregnancy
  • Uterine infections while pregnant
  • Side effects of medication during pregnancy
  • High maternal age at childbirth
  • The child is the first born

The above factors do not implicate autism at birth, but merely increase the risk of the condition. The presence of one or more of the above conditions does not necessarily result in autism.

Back to top

[ Read: What Causes Down Syndrome In Babies ]

What Are The Signs Of Autism In Babies?

The signs of autism are progressive and vary as per the baby’s age. The early signs of autism can present themselves even before the baby is a year old. Here are the signs of autism in infants (7) (8) (9).

Birth to 12 months

  • Does not coo or babble.
  • Does not try to mimic or vocally respond to someone who tries to talk with the baby.
  • Does not make gestures like waving and pointing.
  • Shows no interest in grabbing new objects.
  • Avoids eye contact and may get fussy if someone looks straight into the eyes.
  • Repeatedly sways and stretches hands awkwardly.
  • Does not respond to name, no matter how many times you call out.
  • Plays with toys unusually like always move a toy car forward and backward and does nothing beyond.
  • Always displays excessive fussiness and emotional tantrums when offered new foods.
  • Throws tantrum when something is changed. For example, when you move their toys to a new place.
  • Stays upset for unusually extended durations.
  • Extreme reactions; either too excited or just uninterested.

Some of these signs may even persist through toddlerhood.

12-24 months

  • Performs repeated actions, such as turning a rotating chair in one direction, for minutes together.
  • Continuously bangs head backward to the backrest of the chair.
  • Loses language skills, if any were developed.
  • Makes whining, squealing or growling sounds repeatedly.
  • Shows little interest in interacting with peers and making friends.
  • Continuously repeats a heard word, without understanding its meaning.
  • Shows no interest or enthusiasm in exploring something new.
  • May cry and act fussy in a noisy environment or when encountering bright lights.
  • Reverses the pronouns while talking: might say “you” instead of “I.”
  • Gives random, unrelated answers to questions.
  • Always play with a part of a toy rather than a full toy. Tends to spin the wheel of a toy car instead of moving the entire car ahead.
  • Lines up objects in a straight line or piles them up.
  • Shows awkward compulsive behavior like transferring water from a bottle to cup and back to bottle repeatedly.
  • Becomes attached to unusual objects. Like picking up a bunch of keys and clinging clung to it for the rest of the day, or even falling asleep with it in hand.
  • Walks and performs unusual actions, such as walking up and down an incline repeatedly.
  • Does not pretend play.
  • Does not display emotional empathy.

[ Read: Hydrocephalus Symptoms In Babies ]

24-36 months

  • Does not speak two-word phrases and simple words like other toddlers.
  • Does not initiate conversation. Also, may not show interest in sustaining a current conversation.
  • Displays unusually good memory of numbers and music, such as a song or a jingle heard on the radio.
  • Would tilt and turn to look at objects unusually.
  • Shows no regard for self-safety. For example, the child walks up to the edge of a roof to see what’s below and not be afraid of falling.
  • Has low attention span and pays no attention to someone talking, even if that someone is the only person around.
  • Will not respond to name but instantly turns to other sounds such as the doorbell or a phone ring.
  • Often walks unusually, like on tip-toes or some other awkward way.
  • Will avoid or aggressively resist physical contact.
  • Does not display excitement or joy on experiencing something like going to a park or eating ice cream, which would otherwise excite a toddler.
  • May get grumpy often but is difficult to cajole.
  • Sticks to a routine every day. For instance, if he has baby cereal the first thing in the morning, then he will want to do the same every day and will not be open to even the slightest of changes in the routine.

A baby is quite likely to be diagnosed earlier if screened regularly for autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening an infant for autism at the age of 18 and 24 months (10). Research suggests that detection of autism at 24 months is the most reliable (11).

Back to top

[ Read: Emotional And Social Development In Babies ]

How Is Autism In Babies Diagnosed?

The following screening procedures are used for detecting autism in infants (12):

  1. Examining family health history: If someone in your family had autism, then the baby has a risk of developing the condition. So the pediatrician will ask you questions to learn if other family members have autism. If the baby’s sibling has autism, then the chances of him being autistic are about 18%. If the baby’s identical twin is diagnosed with autism, then the chances increase to 95%.
  1. Observed traits: The doctor will check for unusual behavioral traits that indicate autism in the baby.
  1. Screening questionnaire: Parents are handed an autism test questionnaire called Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT). It contains 23 questions covering all aspects of autism such as language delay, behavioral problems, and a general shift in body language.

M-CHAT helps parents express their observations of the child, while it makes determining autism easier for the healthcare provider. Do note that the screening test questions could vary depending on the questionnaire used by the pediatrician.

Experts state that autism screening does not warrant detection. The behavior of a baby and toddler changes over time and an infant diagnosed with autism at infancy may eventually turn out to be normal. In other words, the M-CHAT is not 100% accurate.

Do not panic if the baby is diagnosed with autism, and do not shy away from asking more questions if he is declared normal but still displays unusual traits.

Back to top

How Is Autism In Babies Treated?

There is no cure for autism (13). Researchers are trying to find a solution to try and tackle the problem at its early stages. Autism among infants and toddlers can be managed with systematic steps of therapies that help the parents and children deal with the condition better.

Back to top

How To Manage Autism In Babies?

Autism in babies can be handled well when the parents, doctors, and specialized care providers play their designated roles as they should. Autism can be managed through (14) (15):

[ Read: Physical Development Stages In Infants ]

  1. Parent education: To help the child, parents should understand what autism is and what they can do to care for their baby better. Parents can seek guidance and help of support groups and organizations that provide the necessary resources.
  1. Improvement therapies: Depending on the baby’s age and the extent of the condition, a pediatrician may recommend a therapy suitable for the infant. Applied Behavior Analysis or the ABA is a popular behavioral therapy that aims at gradually enforcing desirable behavioral and social traits in an autistic person.

It is also called Discrete Trial Therapy or DTT. Such therapies employ a variety of activities to reinforce the desired behavior in the child. ABA is considered to be the most effective of all therapies for autistic individuals. Other therapies recommended include Lovaas Therapy, Augmentative, and Alternative Communication or AAC, and Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based or the DIR Therapy.

  1. Speech, language, and early educational interventions: Infants and toddlers with autism may have difficulty learning, and that could interfere with their chances of having a normal education. A toddler can undergo therapy for fundamental speech skills.
  1. General precautions: Toddlers with autism have little regard for their safety and may indulge in behavior that could put their lives at risk. Securing the home and the environment is the best way to prevent accidents. Simple steps include securing the doors, closing electrical outlets, and keeping the toddler within sight while outdoors. The use of GPS devices and identification tags can also be helpful in case the child tends to wander away (16).

Sometimes the doctor may prescribe medications for autism. These medicines do not treat the condition but subdue the symptoms of collateral disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, hyperkinetic behavior, and depression.

However, infants and toddlers are seldom administered medication. Therapy recommended by the doctor is the best way to help a child with autism.

Back to top

Is Autism In Babies Preventable?

There is no way to prevent autism (17) as there isn’t an exact cause that researchers can pinpoint.

Back to top

Can Babies With Autism Grow To Have Normal Lives?

Yes. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, about 44% individuals with autism have an average, and even above average, intellectual ability. The AAP notes that toddlers with autism are good at remembering numbers and music. These facts prove that autism needn’t limit a child’s abilities and chance to do well in life. Timely intervention through therapy and training helps minimize the limitations. In the long term, adults with autism could live normal lives with little restraints from the disorder (18).

Back to top

[ Read: Stages Of Brain Development In Infants ]

The diagnosis of autism in your baby may be a shock to you. Early diagnosis and early institution of interventional therapies can help a child and improve overall prognosis. There may be no permanent solution to autism, but the condition can be handled. Remember that autism is a disability, but not a disease (19). Disabilities can be overcome with the right tools and interventions, allowing the individual to stay on par with their peers.

Recommended Articles: