If your baby brother or sister has been diagnosed or autism — or if you know someone who is autistic from your school — you are probably curious about this disease and would like to find out more about it.  Below, is a basic introduction to autism and how autism can affect babies.

What is Autism?

Autism is known as a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that differences in the brain can affect the way a child grows and develops.  Autism can affect not only the way a child develops physically, but also their speech and communication skills and their social skills or ability to interact with other people.  If it is not treated, it can seriously affect a child’s ability to be successful in school or make friends.

What Causes Autism?

Scientists all over the world have studied this question, but we still have not come up with a clear answer.  Many researchers think that it is possible that autism is caused by something that happens in the baby’s genes before it is ever born. Others think that maybe if a woman is exposed to certain air pollutants or gets sick with a infection by a virus when she is pregnant that this might also trigger the condition.

You might have heard by now that some people do not get their kids vaccinated because they are afraid that vaccines cause autism. However, the scientist who originally came up with this idea later lost his medical license because he faked results while writing the original research paper. There have been no legitimate studies that have ever linked autism to vaccines.

Who is at Risk?

What doctors do know is that some kids are at higher risk than others for developing autism.  Risk factors include:

  • Being a boy
  • Having a family history of autism
  • Being born prematurely
  • Having older parents (though this is controversial)

It is important to remember that just because someone has risk factors for a disease, that doesn’t mean they will actually get it. It just means they are more likely to.

How Do You Know if a Baby is Autistic?

Researchers know a lot more about early signs of autism than they used to.  Before, most kids were not diagnosed with this disorder until they were at least 18-24 months old — and some were diagnosed much later.  Now, many babies can be diagnosed as early as 12 months of age.  Some scientists are even trying to develop tests for autism for babies as young as 9 months old! Part of this ability to diagnose early is because doctors have a better idea of what signs and symptoms to look for.

Signs and symptoms that a baby might have autism include:

  • Not wanting to be cuddled or held (most babies love this!)
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Fixating on toys or other objects
  • Plays with toys in unusual ways
  • Doesn’t seem to form attachment to parents or other caregivers
  • Does not respond to parents’ voices
  • Is delayed in the ability to coo, babble and later to talk

These are some general symptoms. Let’s look more closely at how autism can cause babies to have developmental delay.

Autism and Developmental Milestones

It may not look like it, but babies are actually learning a lot in the first few years of their lives!  And what they learn is really important, because it forms a foundation for what they will have to learn as they get older and start school.  The important things that babies learn are called developmental milestones.  Autism can delay these milestones — which gives doctors an important clue that something might be wrong.

Parents should be concerned if:

  • By 2 months, a baby does not smile, respond to sounds or raise his head
  • By 4 months, a baby still does not smile, cannot hold his head steady, does not coo and does not following moving objects with his eyes
  • By 6 months, a baby does not respond to caregivers or to his environment and does not reach for objects
  • By 9 months, a baby does not look where you are pointing, doesn’t make babbling sounds, and can’t sit up with support
  • By 12 months, a baby does not point, making simple gestures like waving “bye-bye”, does not crawl and cannot put weight on his legs.

Another warning sign is if a baby regresses.  This means that a baby reaches a developmental milestone but then loses this ability later on.

Why is Detecting Autism Early Important?

If a baby has autism, the sooner parents and doctors find this out, the better. Many studies have shown that if autism is caught early and babies/toddlers start treatment, there chances of being able to be successful in school, make friends and lead a normal life are much, much better.  This treatment is called an “early intervention program” and it helps autistic kids improve their physical abilities, their social skills, and their ability to communicate with others.  The earlier this treatment starts, the better off an autistic child will be.

This is just an introduction to autism. If you want to learn more about it — and about how it affects toddlers and older kids, go to Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org).