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New Guidelines for Autism Screening

Autism is a common disorder affecting almost one child in 500, yet experts say autism often remains undiagnosed for years after the first symptoms appear.

This week, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) published new guidelines, recommending that all babies be screened for developmental problems during routine well-baby visits.

Dr. Laura Popper, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, talked to the Saturday Early Show about autism and its symptoms.

The AAN put out these guidelines because studies have shown that babies diagnosed and treated early for autism usually do better than children who are treated later, Popper says. Often, it can take years after the first symptoms are noticed for autism to be diagnosed.

While many children show clear signs of problems at about 12 months, they may have exhibited subtle symptoms months earlier. Popper cites one survey which found the average age of autism diagnosis was 6 years, despite the parents' suspicion that something was wrong with the child at 18 months of age. "Parents are the master pediatricians," she says. "There's no question that parents are aware long before anyone else."

Symptoms vary, Popper says, but they include communication problems such as no eye contact or response when their name is called out. "Autism is a communication disorder--it's a broad range," she says.

Other possible signs of autism include difficulty in relating to people, objects and events, unusual play habits, unusual difficulty with changes to routine or surroundings and repetitive body movements or behavior patterns.

Doctors aren't sure what causes autism, Popper says. "Clearly it's some issue with the brain," Popper says. "There are many theories."

Autism is actually a group of developmental disorders ranging from mild to very severe and may include seizures and mental retardation. Scientists are investigating genetics, environmental allergies, reactions to vaccines and other possible influences, but Popper says many of these are "very unproven."

Some of the warning signs parents should watch for, according to the guidelines, include:

  • No babbling by 12 months of age
  • No pointing or other gestures by 12 months
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months
  • Any loss of language or social skills at any time.

Popper says it is believed that early intervention is key, because the earlier autism and other developmental disorders are identified, the better people will do long-term. Also, careful work on improving communication, social, academic, behavioral and daily living skills can help. Children with autism generally learn better and are less confused when they are given visual as well as verbal instruction and when other children are around to help demonstrate language, social and behavior skills, she says.

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