TUESDAY, Aug. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Signs of autism may show up in babies as young as 1 month old, a new study shows.
But the tip-offs are not the usual red flags, such as a lack of eye contact or smiling, the researchers noted.
Instead, they found babies who needed neonatal intensive care and were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder were more likely to have abnormal muscle tone and differences in their visual processing than babies who went on to develop normally after time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
The differences, which were subtle and probably not something parents would easily spot, were picked up by trained experts closely observing babies, said study co-author Ira Cohen, chair of the psychology department at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities.
Still, "any parent concerned about the development of their child should have the child evaluated," Cohen said.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and restricted interests and behaviors.
If the study findings are borne out by future research, they might lead to earlier identification and treatment of autistic children, experts say.
For the study, published in the September issue of Pediatrics, researchers identified 28 babies who spent time in the NICU and were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. They matched them by gender and gestational age with 112 babies who did not have autism.
Babies' behavior and development was tested at 1 month old, 4 months and periodically until they were about 2.
At 1 month, infants later diagnosed with autism were more likely to show "persistent neurobehavioral abnormalities" after hospital discharge than other babies. About 40 percent of babies later diagnosed with aut
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