Educating Parents, Professionals About the Earliest Signs of Autism

March 1, 2004
Kennedy Krieger celebrates Autism Awareness Month with a Play Date' at its Center for Autism and Related Disorders

Baltimore - Recent research at Kennedy Krieger reveals that autism can be diagnosed in children as young as 6 months of age, when interventions have the most successful outcomes. Educating pediatricians, developmental practitioners and parents about the earliest signs of autism, and getting children screened as early as possible, is key to improving outcomes.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month in April, staff at Kennedy Krieger's Center for Autism and Related Disorders will provide free overviews of topics related to medical interventions for autism, early detection of autism, behavior management and other topics at an open house at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 20 at its Greenspring campus location. The center's new multi-sensory playground for children with autism will be unveiled, and there will be specially designed play activities for children and their parents.

Children typically are not diagnosed with autism until age 3 or older, when most experts agree that the majority of the damage to the developing brain already has been done. Now the third most common developmental disability in the United States, affecting one in 500 children, autism is typically characterized by delays in social and language skills and abnormal responses to sensations, people, objects and the environment.

Autism is four times more likely in boys than girls, and sometimes occurs in association with other disorders. Though the cause of autism is unknown and there is no known "cure," structured educational programs geared to the child's level can help them live more normal lives.

Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and principal investigator of NIH-funded studies of infant development and early intervention for autism, has found that that, by 6 months, children with autism begin showing signs of the disorder - including poor eye contact, reduced smiling that is synchronized with that of their caregivers and reduced babbling - and by 18 months, a whole constellation of symptoms have emerged, including difficulty with language development, play and initiating and sustaining social interaction, as well as reduced social responsivity.

"What we're looking for in a toddler is the ability to combine eye contact, a smile and some sort of communicative gesture," says Landa. "By testing children early in their development, we are able to develop customized treatment plans based on their needs."

The infant study is one of three that are the focus of Kennedy Krieger's new National Autism Center, which was funded last May with a five-year, $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The Institute joins seven other centers across the country designated as national centers dedicated to Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, or STAART.

Kennedy Krieger Institute is dedicated to helping children and adolescents with disabilities resulting from disorders of the brain achieve their potential and participate as fully as possible in family, community and school life. For more information about Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit www.kennedykrieger.org.

Media Inquiries:

Allison Loritz, (443) 923-7330
Julie Lincoln, (443) 923-7334