New Discovery May Help Detect Autism Earlier

As a health editor, autism is a common topic of conversation, and I’m always interested to hear about new research on the disorder. A few months ago, I had the chance to meet with Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, about a study that has just been released that could be helpful in detecting autism spectrum disorders earlier—an important finding, since early interventions are key to treatment. Here’s what I learned: In typical development, if you lay a six-month-old down on his back and pull him up gently by his arms, he’ll have enough head and neck control to bring his head up with his body. But in the study, researchers found that those at risk factor for developing the disorder (in this case babies with an older sibling on the autism spectrum) may not have the same control, and they’ll keep their head tilted back as they’re being pulled up. Curious to know the connection between head control and autism, Dr. Landa offered me this explanation: “Infants rely on motor development for social interactions and play development, so when we see motor delays during infancy, we want to address them.”

What’s great about the pull-to-sit test is that parents can do it at home and pediatricians can perform the same test in their offices. If you’re curious to try it, remember to make sure you have your child’s full attention. Otherwise, he may keep his head held back to look at an interesting toy or other person in the room. Another super important thing to remember: “We don’t want parents to think that just because their child shows a head lag he’s going to develop autism,” says Dr. Landa. “But it is important to talk to a pediatrician or other professional who can help parents better understand the implications.”


Click here to see an example of typical head and neck control.

This video shows an example of head lag.


Image: Baby holding feet

Videos: Kennedy Krieger Institute


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