New Autism Research: Simple Task at 6-Months Old Could Predict Risk of Autism

Dr. LandaBALTIMORE, Md. (Kennedy Krieger Institute – May 17, 2012) – A new study in autism research reveals six-month-old infants with a weak head and neck control could be a red flag for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and language and/or social developmental delays. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute concluded that a simple “pull-to-sit” task could be added to existing developmental screenings at pediatric well visits to improve early detection of developmental delays.

“Research aimed at improving early detection of autism has largely focused on measurement of social and communication development,” said Dr. Rebecca Landa, study author and director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute. “However, disruption in early motor development may also provide important clues about developmental disorders such as autism.”

On May 17 in Toronto, Dr. Landa will present this and other new research on motor delay and how it impacts development of language and social skills. The spring International Meeting for Autism Research is an annual scientific meeting providing international researchers with an opportunity to share their findings on ASD.

Before Dr. Landa’s current study, the head-lag text has not been used to diagnose ASD. Her team assessed infants in a “pull-to-sit” task, a simple measure of postural control in infants. Typically developing infants achieve this type of postural control by four months of age.

Dr. Landa’s team studied two groups of infants. The first group consisted of 40 infants, ages 5.6 to 10 months, considered to be at high genetic risk because a sibling had autism. Dr. Landa and her team examined their ability to maintain head alignment when being carefully, yet firmly, pulled by the arms from lying flat on his/her back to a sitting position. Infants were scored according to whether their head maintained alignment with the spine, or was in front of the spine, during the task. Lack of this head control indicated head lag.

The second group examined six-month-olds at a single point in time for the presence of head lag. Dr. Landa and her team found that 75% (n =15) of high-risk infants exhibited head lag, compared to 33% (n =7) of low-risk infants, further supporting that head lag is more likely in infants at risk of developing ASD. “Our findings show that the evaluation of motor skills should be incorporated with other behavioral assessments to yield insights into the very earliest signs of autism,” said Dr. Landa.

“While previous research shows that motor impairments are linked to social and communication deficits in older children with autism, the field is just starting to examine this in younger children,” said Dr. Landa. “Our initial research suggests that motor delays may have an important impact on child development.”

Building on the head lag research, Dr. Landa’s team conducted a separate longitudinal study with 14-, 24- and 36-month-old children at high and low risk of developing ASD. The study found that motor delay becomes increasingly evident as children with ASD near their third birthday, yet not all children with ASD experience motor delay. Results showed that children with ASD who experience motor delays are more severely impaired by three years of age than children with ASD with no motor delays.

“While more research is needed to examine why not all children with ASD experience motor delay, the results of our studies examining motor development add to the body of research demonstrating that early detection and intervention for infants later diagnosed with autism is possible and remains crucial to minimize delays and improve outcomes,” said Dr. Landa.

To reach Dr. Landa’s team at the Kennedy Krieger Institute follow this LINK.

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