Once again we’re devoting this blog to bring you information on children and mental health in recognition of the upcoming National Children’s Mental Health Week. 

Can children as young as 6 to 12 months old show signs of autism-related delays?

Today, we’re posting information about autism-delays in children in that age range, from Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md. Dr. Landa says that parents need to be empowered to identify the warning signs of ASD and other communication delays:

Though autism is often not diagnosed until the age of three, some children begin to show signs of developmental delay before they turn a year old. While not all infants and toddlers with delays will develop autism spectrum disorders (ASD), experts point to early detection of these signs as key to capitalizing on early diagnosis and intervention, which is believed to improve developmental outcomes.

“We want to encourage parents to become good observers of their children’s development so that they can see the earliest indicators of delays in a baby’s communication, social and motor skills,” says Dr. Landa, who also cautions that some children who develop ASD don’t show signs until after the second birthday or regress after appearing to develop typically.

For the past decade, Dr. Landa has followed infant siblings of children with autism to identify red flags of the disorder in their earliest form. Her research has shown that diagnosis is possible in some children as young as 14 months and sparked the development of early intervention models that have been shown to improve outcomes for toddlers showing signs of ASD as young as one and two years old.

Dr. Landa recommends that as parents play with their infant (6 – 12 months), they look for the following signs that have been linked to later diagnosis of ASD or other communication disorders:

1. Rarely smiles when approached by caregivers

2. Rarely tries to imitate sounds and movements others make, such as smiling and laughing, during simple social exchanges

3. Delayed or infrequent babbling

4. Does not respond to his or her name with increasing consistency from 6 – 12 months

5. Does not gesture to communicate by 10 months

6. Poor eye contact

7. Seeks your attention infrequently

8. Repeatedly stiffens arms, hands, legs or displays unusual body movements such as rotating the hands on the wrists, uncommon postures or other repetitive behaviors

9. Does not reach up toward you when you reach to pick him or her up

10. Delays in motor development, including delayed rolling over, pushing up and crawling

“If parents suspect something is wrong with their child’s development, or that their child is losing skills, they should talk to their pediatrician or another developmental expert,” says Dr. Landa. “Don’t adopt a ‘wait and see’ perspective. We want to identify delays early in development so that intervention can begin when children’s brains are more malleable and still developing their circuitry.”

The content of this article comes from Dr. Landa and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and we are posting their contact information for parents who would like to follow-up:

Internationally recognized for improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD serves more than 16,000 individuals each year through inpatient and outpatient clinics, home and community services and school-based programs. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children with developmental concerns mild to severe, and is home to a team of investigators who are contributing to the understanding of how disorders develop while pioneering new interventions and earlier diagnosis. For more information on Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit their web site.

Dr. Landa obtained her master’s degree at the Pennsylvania State University and her doctorate at the University of Washington. She completed post-doctoral training in psychiatric genetics at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) Shannon Award for excellent and innovative research, as well as the Rita Rudel Prize for Developmental Neuropsychology. Dr. Landa is also the recipient of the 2009 Alumni Recognition Award from the College of Human Health and Development of the Pennsylvania State University.

Dr. Landa’s research has focused on neuropsychological, learning and communication processes in autism across the lifespan. She was the principal investigator of an National Institutes of Health Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment Center of Excellence, through which she developed and defined the evidence-base for the Early Achievements intervention for toddlers with autism spectrum disorders.

She has pioneered research aimed at identifying the earliest signs of autism through the study of infant siblings of children with autism. She is a member of the executive committee for Autism Speaks’ Baby Sibs Research Consortium and is a member of the Toddler Treatment Network. Dr. Landa is also the principal investigator for an Autism Treatment Network site, and is a co-principal investigator for two studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control. She has multiple research collaborative studies that involve leading scientists within the United States and abroad. Dr. Landa is the author of the Pragmatic Rating Scale, used internationally in autism-related research and clinical practice. Her current research focus is on learning processes in autism, as well as early detection of and intervention for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Dr. Landa directs the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, which offers a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to serving children with ASD and their families. The center combines educational, clinical, diagnostic, outpatient and outreach programs to create treatment that is tailored to the particular needs of individual children and their families.