Autism risk for babies who don't respond to their names

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Autism risk in babies

Year-old babies who do not respond when their name is called may be more likely to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental problem at age 2, making this simple test a potential early indicator for such conditions, according to a report in the April issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a theme issue on autism spectrum disorders.

Although as many as half of parents of children with autism report concerns about their child's developmental progress before the first birthday, the disorder is usually not diagnosed until age 3 or 4, according to background information in the article. "Earlier identification of autism offers the possibility of early intervention, which holds promise for improving outcomes in children with autism," the authors write. "This has motivated a growing body of research that aims to ascertain the earliest reliable indicators of autism."

Aparna S. Nadig, Ph.D., of the M.I.N.D. Institute, University of California Davis, Sacramento, and colleagues assessed the tendency of infants to respond when their names are called, which is "one of the most consistently documented behaviors in infancy that distinguishes children later diagnosed with autism from those with typical development or developmental delays," they write.

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Infants whose older siblings had autism, and who were therefore at risk for autism, were compared with control infants who were not at high risk of developing the disorder. While each child sat at a table playing with a small toy, a researcher walked behind the child and called his or her name in a clear voice. If the child did not respond after 3 seconds, the name was called again up to twice. Fifty-five at-risk infants and 43 control infants completed this test at age 6 months, and 101 at-risk infants and 46 control infants were tested at age 12 months.

"At age 6 months, there was a non-significant trend for control infants to require a fewer number of calls to respond to name than infants at risk for autism," the authors write. "At age 12 months, 100 percent of the infants in the control group 'passed,' responding on the first or second name call, while 86 percent in the at-risk group did."

Forty-six at-risk infants and 25 control infants were followed up for two years; three-fourths of those who did not respond to their name at age 12 months were identified with developmental problems at age 2. A total of 89 percent of infants who did not have an autism spectrum disorder (including autism, Asperger's syndrome and related conditions all defined by deficits in language and social skills) and 94 percent of infants without any developmental delays at two years responded to their name on the first two calls at one year. Of the children who were later diagnosed with autism, half failed the test at one year, and of those who were identified as having any type of developmental delay, 39 percent failed the test.

"Thus, failure to respond to name at the well-child one-year check-up may be a useful indicator of children who would benefit from a more thorough developmental assessment," the authors write. "It will not, however, identify all children at risk for developmental problems."

"Since this task is easy to administer and score and takes few resources, it could be incorporated into well-child pediatric visits at 12 months of age," they conclude. "If a child fails to orient to name, particularly reliably over time, this child has a high likelihood of some type of developmental abnormality and should be referred for more frequent screening, comprehensive assessment and, if indicated, preventive early intervention."

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