For the best outcomes in treating Autism Spectrum Disorder, early diagnosis and intervention are absolutely critical for improving a child's odds of developing important cognitive skills and functioning at a high level later in life.
"It's clear that the earlier you start, the better the long-term outcomes are," Dr. Paul Wang, head of medical research for the autism science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, told The Huffington Post. "You really want to get these kids an intervention as soon as possible."
But the disorder, which almost always begins to appear when the child is between 12 and 18 months old, can present itself in many different ways. This can make it difficult for parents to identify. In fact, roughly half of parents are unfamiliar with the early signs of autism, according to Wang.
"Parents can start picking up on differences as early as six months," Wang said. "Not every child is going to have differences that parents or anyone can pick up, but some will and it can start that early."
“Parents can start picking up on differences as early as six months.”
The neurodevelopmental disorder -- which is becoming an increasingly common diagnosis among American children -- is characterized by differences in social behaviors, communication and perception. Typical red flags range from delays in speaking to unusual sensory behaviors.
To help parents recognize and act immediately on the early signs of autism, Autism Speaks recently launched a series of animated PSAs as part of their "Learn the Signs" campaign. The first ad uses stop-motion animation to follow the story of a young boy with autism and offer a glimpse into his imagination.
The one-minute video -- which was inspired by the experiences of a real boy named Jacob, who did not speak until he was 4 years old, according to Autism Speaks -- notes some common red flags for autism, including lack of speech and eye contact, sensitivity to light and sound, and repetitive behaviors such as arm-flapping.
As the video's narrator concludes, "Early intervention can make a lifetime of difference."
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5 Early Signs
Beyond the common warning signs listed above, here are five early indications of autism that experts say parents should be aware of.
1. Doesn't respond to his or her own name. A healthy baby will respond, usually by turning, when their own name is called by a caregiver. Only 20 percent of babies who are later diagnosed with autism respond when their name is called.
2. Doesn't engage "joint attention." Joint attention is an early indication of language skills, because it suggests the ability to share something with another person. An example would be a child seeing an airplane in the sky, looking at the airplane, looking at his mother and then looking back at the plane as if to say, Do you see what I see?
"You're sharing a topic," UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Connie Kasari, who is currently conducting a trial to measure the effects of early intervention on children with autism, told The Huffington Post. "Children who do more of that actually get language faster."
3. Doesn't imitate others' behavior. Babies with autism are less likely to mirror another's movements -- smiling, waving or clapping, for instance -- than typical babies.
4. Doesn't engage in pretend play. A child's love of playing pretend (for instance, playing "mother" to a baby doll or pretending a banana is a telephone) typically emerges around 2 or 3 years old. Children with autism, however, are less likely to engage with objects in this way.
"Children with autism pay attention to objects differently," Kasari said. "As they get older, they may use objects as they're intended but they're less likely to do imaginative play with that object."
5. Doesn't respond emotionally. While typical babies are very sensitive to the emotions of others, babies with autism are less likely to smile in response to the smile of another, or to cry when they see another child crying.
What Parents Can Do
Wang and Kasari advise parents to keep an eye out for these common red flags starting around the time their baby is 12 months old, and to talk to their pediatrician if they have any concerns. As a preliminary tool, parents can also use the M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) test to determine whether their child might need professional help.
"We want parents to know if they're suspecting a developmental problem that there's help out there," Kasari said. "And there's also hope. These kind of interventions really can make a difference."