Babies of the spectrum: childhood autism

When people hear the word “autism” they probably can’t imagine babies. After all, most aren’t diagnosed until they’re toddlers or even older. But ASD does exist in infants, and detecting it early can make a difference to your child’s behavioral development and functioning in the future.

Babies of the spectrum: childhood autism

In this article, we’ll discuss what you can do as a parent if you think your baby might be on the spectrum.

What is early childhood autism?

Childhood autism is not distinct from “ordinary” autism: children and adults with autism were also babies with autism; they may simply not have been diagnosed until later.

Some people with ASD first reach typical stages of language and social skills development before regressing around 19 months of age, a phenomenon called regressive autism. However, many people experience symptoms during their first year of life.

The term “early childhood autism” was coined by Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, in 1943. His study of 11 children, who at the time would have been diagnosed as having an intellectual disability or schizophrenia, was the first to suggest autism as a unique condition. He noted that, unlike schizophrenic patients, all of these patients showed signs of difference from birth, which led him to believe there was a genetic factor. He characterized the disorder by antisocial behaviors, repetitive interests and language difficulties.

The work of Hans Asperger, published in 1944, also laid the foundation for our modern understanding of autism spectrum disorders. He studied children with average to above average intelligence and standard use of language, but communication and social skills problems similar to those of Kanner’s subjects. Asperger’s research won’t become well-known in the English-speaking world for a few decades, but Asperger’s syndrome is named after him.

The American Psychiatric Association listed five types of autism: autism spectrum disorders (derived from Leo Kanner’s original early childhood autism), Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive developmental disorders (not elsewhere specified), disorders childhood disintegratives and Rett syndrome. In 2013, the experts decided the diagnoses were too fluid, so they merged them with just autism.

We still don’t know exactly what causes ASD, but potential factors include genetic makeup, having a sibling with ASD, the birth of older parents, and more.

How can parents spot the signs of autism in babies?

The majority of people with ASD are not diagnosed until they are three years or older. Because social difficulties are such a big part of the disorder, it may seem difficult to detect them in a child before they are old enough to be social with their peers.

But some characteristics may appear when your child is an infant:

Lack of eye contact

  • Most babies start making eye contact with their parents around two months of age. Babies with ASD may not, even while breastfeeding

Lack of speech

  • Two months is also the age at which most infants chirp and tweet on their first attempts at language and verbal communication. At nine months, they will likely test vowels and consonants and make sounds to express their emotions. At one year old, they can usually say “mommy” and “daddy” and try to repeat your words.
  • Babies with autism may take much longer to reach these milestones in language development. If they are repeating words, maybe it is as a form of echolalia rather than a functional language. Some will be non-verbal throughout their lives

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Lack of responsiveness

  • In less than a year, most babies will respond to their names and simple requests, understand the word ‘no’, engage in games like patties, and respond to cooing, hand gestures and applause. . During this time, babies with autism may not recognize attempts at communication or interaction by their caregivers.

Lack of attachment

  • Studies have shown that babies with autism often don’t show much attachment or affection to their parents. According to Schriebman and Charlop (1989), they “may not conform to their parents’ body when held” or “remain stiff and rigid or” go limp “when held”.
  • They may also have little interest in being among siblings or other children.

Narrow interests

  • Infants with autism may have limited interest in certain games or toys and engage in repetitive, ritualistic play instead of imaginative play

Check APM ‘s article Signs of autism in babies for more symptoms.

Treatment of childhood autism

Early intervention, if possible, can be crucial for a child’s future quality of life. A study by Ben-Itzchak & Zachor (2006) analyzed how 25 subjects, aged 20 to 32 months, progressed after a year of “intensive behavioral intervention”. They had a range of intellectual, cognitive, linguistic and social challenges, some functioning at higher levels than others. All subjects made significant progress at least in language skills.

Of course, while babies can show signs of ASD, there’s a reason official conclusions aren’t usually drawn until they’re older. A 2019 study looked at 1,200 children who had at least two assessments during the study. The researchers measured the “diagnostic stability”, or degree of diagnostic blocking, of patients diagnosed with ASD.

The diagnostic stability of diagnoses made around 12-13 months was 50%, 80% around 14 months and 83% around 16 months. Clearly, the older a child, the more confident doctors can be that they have ASD.

The treatment of infants who are (or are suspected of having) autism depends on what each child is struggling with. Some children with ASD are fluent in speech and language, while others are not. Some may have behavioral problems, such as aggression, while others do not. Each child is unique, so each parent’s search for a solution is also unique.

One of the most common approaches to the disorder is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which rewards healthy behaviors and thought patterns. Your child may also need occupational therapy, speech therapy, or other behavioral interventions.

Even if a child with developmental difficulties does not turn out to be autistic, there is no harm in accessing treatment. Addressing cognitive delays of any kind early will hopefully improve their language and behavioral and social functioning later in life.


It is normal to be worried and scared if your baby is not developing as you think. Whether ASD is the final diagnosis, has a different disorder, or just has a late bloomer, you need to keep track of their behaviors, speech, social interactions, and milestones and report any concern to your doctor.

If your son or daughter has ASD, you have access to a range of resources and a community of families ready to support you.

The references:

Ben-Itzchak, Esther and Ditza A. Zachor. “The effects of intellectual functioning and autism severity on the outcome of early behavioral intervention in children with autism.” ” Developmental Disorders Research, flight. 28, no. 3, 2007, p. 287-303. PubMed, Accessed 2021.

Brown, Maressa. “What Parents Need to Know About Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders.” ”, May 21, 2020, Accessed June 1, 2021.

Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention. “The milestones in the development of the CDC. ” Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention, 2021, Accessed May 25, 2021.

Fischbach, Gerald D. “The 1943 Leo Kanner article on autism.” Spectrum News, December 7, 2007, Accessed May 27, 2021.

McCarthy, Claire. “When can you – and should you – be diagnosed with autism? ” Harvard Health Edition, August 23, 2019, Accessed May 26, 2021.

Schreibman, Laura and Marjorie H. Charlop. “Infantile autism”. Manual of Child Psychopathology, Springer, 1989. SpringerLink, Accessed 2021.

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