While it's not clear what's driving the uptick in prevalence, and the precise causes of autism are still unknown, experts are calling for earlier diagnosis. "We have to get this down to 18 months of age to truly have the greatest impact," says Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. Doctors have gotten better at identifying autism symptoms in younger children—four is the average age of diagnosis—but "four years old is still too late," he says. Frieden stresses that the earlier a child is identified with autism, the more likely it is that behavioral intervention will make the disability more manageable. Parents may be able to spot symptoms of autism before a child's first birthday, says Coleen Boyle, who heads up the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. "Parents know their child best, but if they do have concerns, the important thing is not to wait [to seek help]," she says. Susan Hyman, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics subcommittee on autism, strongly recommends having children screened by a child development specialist at 18, 24, and 30 months.
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At Nine Months to One Year
At this age, your child should be moving up in his ability to communicate. Simple "oohs" and "ahhs" are typically replaced by a wider variety of sounds, and maybe even words like "mama." Slower speech development isn't necessarily cause for concern, though. As your child nears his first birthday, his eyes are the most notable red flag. At nine months your baby should be able to make eye contact, and even recognize familiar faces and emotive expressions. Children with autism struggle to maintain eye contact and often cannot mimic facial expressions like smiles or frowns.
At 18 Months >>
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At Four Years >>
To learn more about picking up signs of autism, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.