Anyone who has spent even a little time with an autistic boy or girl soon becomes familiar with the behaviors that set these children apart: lack of eye contact, trouble verbalizing, overreacting or underreacting to activities around them, difficulty in expressing their feelings and in understanding the emotions of others. But how do parents and doctors know if a baby, who is too immature to be gauged on any of these traits, has autism? Early diagnosis has proved difficult.
Inability to detect autism until a child is two or three years old is a terrific disadvantage. It "eliminates a valuable window of treatment opportunity, when the brain is undergoing tremendous development," says David G. Amaral, professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at the University of California, Davis.