Earlier Autism Detection Raises Questions About Early Intervention

Autism is a genetic disorder that affects about 20% of younger siblings of those on the spectrum. Researchers are now saying that they often show symptoms as early as 18 months, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP). The study used 719 younger siblings of those with autism, otherwise known as ‘high risk’ siblings, who were assessed at 18 months and then 36 months to identify any social, communications, and repetitive behaviors that could be early symptoms. Warning signs such as poor eye contact and/or repetitive behaviors were observed in 57% of siblings and among those without symptoms at 18 months, for the ones who were later diagnosed, started showing signs by 36 months. Researchers note that about half of the children had poor eye contact combined with limited gestures and imaginative play while other children exhibited repetitive behaviors and lacked nonverbal communication skills.

Although it is important to detect these warning signs or early symptoms of autism, John Elder Robison, author of Raising Cubby, Look Me in the Eye, My Life with Asperger’s and Be Different–adventures of a free range Aspergian, and member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, expresses his concern over early intervention. According to people on the spectrum who had received early intervention treatments as children, their experiences seemed half positive and half negative.

While many people talk about how wonderful it was to have that support throughout their childhood, “others talk about suppressing behaviors that embarrassed parents…[and] imposing their will where it was not wanted.” Robison argues that this is something to take into serious consideration as we move forward with creating new treatments and therapies for early intervention. He critiques our abilities to deter autism in infants now as young as 6 months old, asking what interventions are actually appropriate at this stage and to what end?

When providing intervention for a four-year-old, we are able to see the progress we make in the child’s behaviors and adjust our plans accordingly. However, with an infant, the issues are not very clear, Robison says, “We may pick up a sign of autism, but what kind of autism? Will the child be verbal or silent? Will the child be lovable, eccentric, unable to care for themselves or talk…it’s too early to know.”

As we continue to move forward with autism diagnoses at earlier stages, we also need to move forward in the methods and treatments we use for early intervention.

To read the original study, click HERE

To read John Elder Robison’s article, click HERE