University of Pittsburgh
July 17, 2007

Pitt Psychologist Explores Early Indicators for Autism in Infants

NIH-funded study to develop checklist of early warning signs

Sharon Blake


Cell: 412-277-6926

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

Now, University of Pittsburgh associate professor of psychology Jana Iverson is looking for early identifiers for ASD in babies younger than age two who have an older sibling with autism. She will be looking 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 two years of age," says 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."

Armed with 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 their personal memories. Iverson's one-hour home visits, in which she enlists the assistance of Pitt undergraduate psychology majors, are convenient for the families and allow the baby to be more comfortable. The 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 using gestures, little eye contact, and a lack of smiling. But Iverson points out that there are babies who show none of these symptoms but then develop autism later.

Nonetheless, she feels her research project will, at the very least, help develop a checklist of warning signs for ASD that could eventually be used at well-baby checkups.