updated 5/6/2005 2:23:22 PM ET 2005-05-06T18:23:22

Infants who make little eye contact, have trouble smiling and aren’t very active may be showing signs of autism, Canadian researchers report in a small study that suggests autism could be spotted earlier than it is.

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If autistic behavior can be spotted as early as 12 months, as the research indicates, it would enable doctors and parents to start effective therapy sooner.

Parents currently have to wait until a child is typically 2 to 3 years old to find out if the toddler has the mysterious developmental disability.

The study involved 150 infants who already were at high risk of developing autism based on family history. The researchers were from various Canadian hospitals and universities, including the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, York University and the University of Toronto.

Families with an autistic child have a 5 percent to 10 percent higher risk of having another child with the condition, a rate of recurrence about 50 times higher than the general population.

The research, published in the April-May edition of the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, was carried out for two years.

The team identified a list of common behavioral traits found in the 19 infants who actually went on to develop autism.

They found the infants had a lack of eye contact with parents, problems visually following an object and had trouble expressing themselves through facial expressions, such as smiling. They also had problems recognizing their names and lower activity levels than their healthy counterparts when they were as young as 6 months.

Dr. Wendy Roberts, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children and a team leader, said other pediatricians already were contacting her about possible early autism warnings among their own infant patients.

Roberts said there were few programs for potentially autistic children younger than 3, the age at which most cases are typically diagnosed.

“It puts pressure on the scientific community to come up with treatments for children under 3,” she said.

Tenfold increase
Dr. Catherine Lord, an autism researcher at the University of Michigan, cautioned that while the study is promising, more research involving a larger number of infants needs to be done before doctors could make a firm diagnosis at such a young age. She said the Canadian research should only be used to consider potential risks of autism, and not firm diagnoses.

Roberts said that the 19 infants who had all the traits outlined in the study did go on to have autism, a complex developmental disorder best known for impairing a child’s ability to communicate or interact with others.

Recent data suggest a tenfold increase in autism rates over the last decade, although it’s unclear how much of the apparent surge reflects better diagnosis and how much is a true rise.

Roberts said infants in the study who had only some of the traits ended up in a “gray area.”

“They may have autism or it could be a speech-language or other type of disorder,” she said.

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