Like most parents, you probably pay close attention to your baby's developmental milestones. (He's smiling! She's pointing!) Keep up the good work -- pediatricians say that parents can be their best allies when it comes to diagnosing developmental disorders.
Experts say there are red flags in a child's early development that may lead to identification of an autistic spectrum disorder as early as 12 to 18 months of age. And it's believed that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. "There is no cure for autism, but the faster you get a child into intensive intervention, the more promising the long-term outcome is for both the child at risk and the family," says Nancy Wiseman, founder and president of First Signs, a group dedicated to early identification and treatment of autistic children.
Autism, a neurological disorder that strikes one in 500 children -- mostly boys -- appears to be on the rise. (A recent University of California study found a threefold increase in autism rates in the past decade.) The disorder is characterized by difficulty communicating and interacting socially. No one knows for sure what causes autism, though it's probably due to a combination of genetic, infectious, and environmental factors, according to Carolyn Frazer Bridgemohan, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston. Large studies have concluded that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine does not cause autism. A recent study also found that thimerosal (a preservative that contains mercury) in older vaccines was unlikely to have been a cause.
While your baby's pediatrician should look for suspect behaviors during routine well-baby checkups, you can help spot red flags by reporting any delays your child has in reaching developmental milestones, such as smiling back when you smile (4 months) and using gestures such as pointing (12 months).
Parental instinct can be one of the best diagnostic tools. If you feel something is wrong with your baby, ask for a referral to a specialist. For more information, visit the Autism Society of America at www.autism-society.org or First Signs at www.firstsigns.org.