The sooner autism is diagnosed, the sooner treatment and coping strategies can begin. The sooner these therapies begin, the better the chance the child will thrive throughout life. Current pediatric recommendations call for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) assessments at ages 18 months and 24 months but a new study has found a way to assess a child's risk much sooner. Seems it's all about the tilt and size of the head.

Concerned parents, screening questionnaires, and pediatric judgment usually all come into play when diagnosing a young child with ASD but not until a child is well beyond his or her first birthday. Carole A. Samango-Sprouse and her team of research colleagues devised a way to determine how vulnerable a child is to autism sooner than that.

Samango-Sprouse, working from the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children in Davidsonville, Maryland, enlisted the parents of 1,024 infants 9 months old or younger who all showed signs of healthy, typical development for their age. Upon enrollment in the study, each child's head circumference was measured and they were given a head tilt test.

Head Tilt Test
The head tilt test involved holding a child under its arms and raising it straight up away from the person holding it. The baby was then tilted at a 45-degree angle to the right and left before being returned to an upright position and put back down.

The object of the tilting was to see if the child instinctively righted its head toward the upright position when tilted. If it did right its head, the researchers interpreted this as evidence of healthy postural control, motor proficiency, and early motor development. Babies who did not right their heads during the tilt were thought to exhibit early signs of autism.

Head Circumference
The research team then compared the head tilt results with head circumference. In previous studies, babies with heads larger than the average or whose heads suddenly grew in size were at greater risk of autism than those whose head circumference and growth rate were within normal ranges.

The original assessment identified 15 children at risk for autism and 33 at risk of developmental learning delay. All children still enrolled in the study at 18, 24, and 36 months were given the standard assessments for children of that age, including family histories and genetic testing.

As the children grew, 14 of the 15 originally deemed at risk for autism were eventually diagnosed with the disorder. Of those considered at risk for learning delays, 32 of the 33 were later diagnosed accordingly.

Boys are diagnosed with ASD four times more often than girls. Interestingly, the Samango-Sprouse screenings identified 7 girls at risk for every 8 boys at risk.

Source: Samango-Sprouse, Carole A, et al. "Identification of infants at risk for autism spectrum disorder and developmental language delay prior to 12 months." autism. The National Autistic Society. Feb 18, 2014. Web. Apr 29, 2014.