Autism and Early Brain Development: New Study Helps Point to Early Detection

Autism is one of a group of disorders that cause impairments in cognitive development, social interaction and communication, and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. Autism can become evident in early childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. Currently, we don't have a good estimate of the number of young children in Memphis with autism.

Some common symptoms and signs of autism include: having trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all, having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings, repeating or echoing words or phrases said to them, having trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions, repeating actions over and over again, or losing skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were using).

With national autism rates soaring over the last decade, researchers are seeking the earliest clues of the disorder. The sooner a child is diagnosed and begins treatment, the better the long-term outcome. In a recent study published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, leading autism researchers have found that because infant gaze is among the first clues of social functioning, infants who don't exhibit this fondness for gazing at human faces may be exhibiting one of the first signs of autism (LA Times 2010).The researchers of this study observed 25 6-month-old infants who were siblings of children with autism. (Siblings have a much higher risk of developing the disease.) They were compared with 25 infants from families with no history of autism. The infants were observed performing a task that measured their ability to learn and level of social engagement with a caregiver (Bhat, Galloway and Landa 2010).

They found that the infants in the low-risk group were more likely to have normal social gazing. They looked at their caregivers, became excited while playing and pointed to the toy. The high-risk siblings, however, spent less time looking at their caregivers and more time focused on the toy. This study provides more evidence for early diagnosis. The lack of interest in children's faces is a subtle difference that could be easily overlooked by both parents and some professionals, but awareness of this symptom can help parents identify any developmental problems their child may be facing.

The Takeaway: In Memphis, the key to early detection and intervention and diagnosis is parent education. If parents are aware of the signs they should be looking for, they can seek out the help they need to help their children overcome the developmental delays that may occur as a result of autism. With over 300 children suffering from autism in the Memphis City Schools, and over 250 in Shelby County Schools, there are numerous resources that are available to these children and families (TDOE 2008). The Harwood Center serves students with diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, and prematurity. Their mission is to enable children with special developmental needs to reach their full potential, and assist students in achieving and demonstrating more positive development in cognitive, social, language, motor and self-help skills. Harwood is one of the few agencies in Shelby and surrounding counties with specialized programs for children under three with autism spectrum disorders. For more information or to get involved, please contact Kay Guenther at 901-448-8369.


Bhat, A., Galloway, J. and Landa, R. (2010). Social and non-social visual attention patterns and associative learning in infants at risk for autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51: 989–997.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Autism Spectrum Disorders Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://

Roan, Shari. (2010, September 2). If baby doesn't like to gaze at faces, it could be an early sign of autism. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,2418054.story.

Tennessee Department of Education. (2008). Enrolment in Special Education Services. Retrieved from