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The children began treatment at around 19 months. In addition, Pierce's program does MRI scans and other tests as part of broader research into autism's biological underpinnings, studies now limited by the few numbers of babies being identified as at risk when they're so young.
One big puzzle: Only a fraction of the total 1,318 babies who failed the initial screening were referred for follow-up. The study couldn't tell how much of that gap was recording error, or if doctors or parents weren't worried enough to follow up right away, or if families went elsewhere.
Still, the study shows early screening is feasible in the hectic everyday offices of regular pediatricians. That's important as scientists now develop various screening tests, said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, which co-funded the work.
Pierce says other cities should consider the screening -- but doctors first must know where to send families for follow-up testing. That can cost several thousand dollars, and state programs for free evaluation of at-risk children may have waiting lists.
For now, what should worry parents? Pierce's top concerns:
Lack of what she calls "shared attention." Around age 1, babies should try to "pull your attention into their world," pointing to a bird and watching to see if you look, for example, or bringing you a toy, she said.
Lack of shared enjoyment, where a baby may smile at mom but not engage if other people try peek-a-boo.
Repetitive behaviors like spinning a car wheel rather than playing with the toy.
Language delays are worrisome if they accompany other problem signs, she said: "If they wave and they point, that's a good sign the brain is readying itself to be ready to speak."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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