We all know the importance of early intervention for children with autism. We are constantly striving for earlier and more accurate diagnosis. That is why there is such interest from the wire services in a study that demonstrated weak head and neck control in babies may also be an early sign of autism.
Most of the screening tools for very young children look at language (babbling), eye contact, social behaviors and repetitive behaviors. So, what is new about this study is that a motor delay, specifically head lag, could be one of the early indicators of autism. Head lag had been shown to be a good test of the function of the motor system, overall muscle tone and central nervous system. Head lag has been found to indicate delays in children with cerebral palsy and preterm infants.
Dr. Rebecca Landa, the lead author of the study, presented these findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research. She assessed forty children between 5.6 months and 10 months who were determined to be at high risk for autism because of having a sibling with autism. The children were tested at six, fourteen, twenty four and thirty months. A large number of the children were diagnosed with ASD at thirty months. In addition, some of the children who had experienced head lag received a diagnosis of mild language/social delay. It is important to note that some of the children who had head lag did not meet the criteria for ASD or language/social delay. Therefore, head lag is not, in and of itself, an indicator of autism.
Dr. Landa also conducted a longitudinal study with fourteen, twenty four and thirty six month children with high and low risks for developing ASD. Her findings were interesting. We know that not all children with ASD have motor delays; however Dr. Landa did find that in children with ASD, motor delays become more evident toward the third birthday. Also, children with ASD and motor delays are more severely impaired than children without delays. I find this piece of information very helpful because we are always attempting to determine what will be the most effective treatment for each child.
It will be interesting to see if motor lag is added as an item in screening assessments for very young children in the future.