Science & Technology/Iverson’s Study Explores Early Indicators for Autism in Infants

Issue Date: 
August 22, 2007

NIH-funded research will develop checklist of early warning signs


Research has proven that babies who have an older sibling with autism have an elevated risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) themselves.

Now, Pitt psychology professor Jana Iverson is looking for early identifiers for ASD in infants younger than age 2 who have an older sibling with autism. She will look at patterns of vocal, motor, and communicative skills and how they may vary in infants with ASD over a five-year period.

“We currently lack reliable methods for diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children younger than 2 years of age,” said Iverson. “Our goal is to distinguish prospectively between infants eventually diagnosed with ASD, infants eventually diagnosed with other developmental delays but not ASD, and those with no apparent ASD symptoms.”

Supported by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Iverson is recruiting 150 babies for the study, in which she will audio- and videotape the babies at their homes. This differs from previous methods of viewing parents’ home movies or relying on parents’ memories. Iverson’s one-hour home visits, which she conducts with help from Pitt undergraduate psychology majors, are convenient for the families and allow the babies to be more comfortable. Researchers will study each infant every month from the ages of 5 to 14 months, then again at 18, 24, and 36 months. The parents are given a baby book in which to document observations.

According to the American Association of Pediatrics, early signs of autism in children can include a lack of gesturing, smiling, and/or eye contact. But Iverson notes that some babies show none of these symptoms yet still develop autism later.

Nonetheless, she points out that her research project will, at least, help to develop a checklist of warning signs for ASD that could be used at well-baby checkups.