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11/12/2008

“Odd” Baby Play = Autism?

A recent study published by the UC Davis MIND Institute has found that infants who repetitively play with toys by spinning them or rattling them or who look at objects out of the corners of their eyes at one year of age are more likely than those who don’t to be diagnosed with autism, says the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Baby Bell Rattle.jpg

What is troubling is not the finding itself, but the idea that these results might encourage parents to become hyper-vigilant about their infant’s play behaviors, perhaps even to the point of unnecessary worry for the parents. Moreover, at one year of age, there do not exist the treatment interventions to begin caring for autistic children or those on the spectrum in the same way for those with later diagnoses. Adding a screening test of this kind at this point–without having established that there are effective treatment modalities for children diagnosed at this age–would unnecessarily worry parents and provide them with no viable treatment options.

Suggesting, as the investigators in this study did, that this indicator should be “added to a parent’s checklist” for monitoring their child’s development seems ill-advised–at least at this point. Even if it is the case that the brain is more plastic at younger ages, nothing in this study suggests that we know that the same methods that work on a 24-month or 36-month old will work on a 9-month or 12-month old. The same measures for language development, responses to stimuli, and other measures cannot be the same at these dramatically different developmental stages for infants.

While this finding is interesting in and of itself that the same behaviors evidenced later in life in children with autism are sometimes present earlier in life, the results of this study do not do anything to suggest that earlier diagnosis will result in accurate diagnosis, better treatment or better outcomes for those ending their first year of life and who may be potentially at risk for developing autism.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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