New autism testing reveals breakthrough

Three year old Owen has autism—it’s something his family found out about a year ago.

“We thought he might have hearing problems because he would not answer us when we called to him,” said Kristen Skerry, Owen’s mother.

And that was just one of the problems. But, like many children, Owen wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was a toddler. But now, researchers say parents may be able to catch autism even earlier.

Dr. Rebecca Landa is director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. For several years, she and her team studied infant siblings of children with autism and found that 90 percent of children who has autism at age three, showed head lag at infancy.

At six months old, when they pulled babies gently from a lying down position into a seated position the babies who showed poor head control, or head lag, tended to have autism or mild social and communication problems at age three.

“You can treat these early motor delays. They are very responsive to early intervention,” said Dr. Landa.

Although Owen never got the head lag test, he is now receiving early intervention at the Institute.

“He's a typical toddler in our house now. He goes from toy to toy to toy and I love it because he's actually playing like a toddler should,” Skerry said.

Owen’s mother says had she known about the head lag test early on, she would have done it.

“No parent wants to hear at six months old there's a possibility your child might be autistic but to know that at six months old we could have been receiving services for him and getting physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy for him, for me that would have been wonderful,” Skerry said.

Doctor Landa stresses that the head lag test is not a sure sign for autism, but it is helpful. She says parents who notice their child is showing similar signs should call their doctor.

“One of the things that pediatricians get out of this is not only a good feel for the baby's developing motor system but also how easy it is to get the baby's eye contact, to get the baby to smile and engage with them,” Dr. Landa said.