A powerful early warning signal for autism was proposed in the July 16, 2003 issue of JAMA. The symptoms of autism usually are not first noticed until children are already toddlers or in preschool. The new study followed the head growth patterns of babies and found a significant difference between those who would later be diagnosed with autism and their healthy peers.
It had already been known that by the time children are diagnosed with autism, they tend to have larger than average heads. But did this happen before, during, or after the symptoms developed?
A careful look found that babies with autism tend to have smaller than average heads at birth. Then, sometime between 1-2 months old and 6-14 months old, there is an unusually rapid period of head growth.
This striking pattern could provide a nice early screening for autism. It appears to occur in the great majority of those with autism, but also in up to 6 percent of healthy children. Early identification of those at high risk could result in treatment two or three years earlier than currently possible.
When PKU treatment was moved up by newborn screening, the improved results were dramatic. This observation about head growth in autism may open the door to more precise diagnosis and treatment than ever before.