30-Second Test Can Help Diagnose Autism in Infants

Researchers find that a simple task can help gauge infants' autism risk.

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A simple, 30-second exercise administered when an infant is six months old could help tell whether he or she is predisposed to autism, according to an expert.

A "pull-to-sit" task—performed by allowing an infant to lie flat on his or her back and then pulling their arms into a sitting position—can help parents gauge autism risk, especially if a sibling has the disorder, according to researchers at Kennedy Krieger Institute, which studies children with mental disorders. Nearly all 3-year-olds who were diagnosed with autism experienced "head lag" when they were six months old—meaning their neck had trouble supporting their head during the pull-to-sit exercise.

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"That head lag is an indicator of a disruption in neurodevelopment," says Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. "We have outcome data that says 90 percent of babies who went on to have autism had this head lag—some babies who had social and communication delays also had it."

The test is not a definitive way to diagnose autism, Land says. But it's a quick, easy way of testing an infan'ts development. Experts say that if autism is detected early, intervention can be taken to help acclimate babies to social situations—some can even grow out of the disorder.

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Landa says there are a few things parents can do to help strengthen their baby's neck muscles—including allowing the infant to lie flat on its stomach or have him or her sit upright unsupported. The test could be another benchmark for parents to help monitor the development of their child, similar to benchmarks such as babbling, smiling, and grasping objects.

"If they have head lag, the first thing I'm asking is 'How is my baby doing in other aspects of their development?'" she says. "Is he showing interest in the environment and grasping things? If not, I'm going to mention this to my doctor."