Video: Autism early detection

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/13/2004 7:50:40 PM ET 2004-07-13T23:50:40

As David Melugin watches anxiously through a one-way mirror, his wife Heather takes part in a behavioral test to determine whether their 16-month-old daughter, Amy, has autism.

The Melugins know all about autism, a brain disorder that leaves children unable to form normal relations.  Their six-year-old son Joe was diagnosed when he was three. Their second son, Ben, does not have it the disorder, but they worry about Amy. 

"Every time we have to go in for a checkup … I worry, is everything going to be OK?" says Heather.

Autism can range from mild to severe. Many scientists now believe that if a child does have autism, early intervention through intensive interactions with adults can help some children improve over time.

Experts estimate about one out of 250 children born in the United States has some degree of autism. There is a genetic component because the risk increases to about one in 25 if the child has a brother or sister with the condition.

Dr. Rebecca Landa, a speech pathologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, checked Amy's responses to various situations. "By 12 months, they really should be communicating through all sorts of gestures. They should be waving 'bye bye' and starting to point and understanding very clearly," says Landa.

A typical child interacts with his mother, while a child who is autistic pays little attention.  Often a baby can seem normal at birth, but then show symptoms after only a few months.

"Any loss of skills that parents notice, that stay around for more than a week, parents should definitely talk to their doctor about it," says Landa.

As for Amy, she seems free of symptoms. But her parents are taking no chances, knowing all too well that the earlier autism is diagnosed, the more likely intervention can improve the child's life.

For more information about autism, visit the National Institutes of Health Web site or Cure Autism Now.

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