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A Test for Autism Risk: Head Lag

A simple test developed by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore may be able to help determine whether a child will develop autism and other forms of developmental delays. The pull-to-sit test, done in infants as young as six months old, monitors whether or not a child has head lag, or trouble controlling his neck and head. While the test is not a diagnosis, children with head lag have a higher risk of autism or other social or communication delays.

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Research by Dr. Rebecca Landa and Dr. Joanne Flanagan and colleagues at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore has shown a simple way to see if a six-month-old may be at a higher risk of autism and other social or communication delays. The pull-to-sit test shows whether a baby has weak head and neck control which is known as head lag. First, let's look at a baby who does not have head lag. To do the pull-to-sit test, lay your baby flat on his back and hold his hands. Once you have his full attention, begin to pull him up gently but firmly by his arms into a sitting position. A typically developing baby should keep his head in line with his body in this situation after four months of age. Now, here is a baby with head lag. He does not have enough head and neck control and so his head tilts back as he is being pulled up. If your baby has head lag, it does not mean that he will definitely have autism, but he's at significantly higher risk for autism or other type of developmental delay. The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the sooner he'll be able to benefit from treatment. For more information about head lag and autism, visit the Kennedy Krieger's website at kennedykrieger.org/head lag.