Brooke Ingersoll of Michigan State University said autism is normally diagnosed between ages 2 and 3, but if physicians could detect autism spectrum disorders in babies as young as 12 months, it might be possible to help them earlier -- and perhaps even stop them from developing autism.
"In the field, there's this new excitement," Ingersoll said in a statement. "We're starting to get a picture of what autism looks like in the first years of life."
Results are coming from studies that tracked large numbers of children ages 6 months to 3 years, when a formal diagnosis of autism could be determined, Ingersoll said.
"The group of children that eventually develop autism spectrum disorders looks different from typically-developing kids," Ingersoll said.
For example, at 12 months, children who will later develop autism are less likely to show "joint attention behaviors" paying attention to both a toy and another person, Ingersoll said.
If young children have problems with social behaviors, it may then explain some of the later problems in autism. For example, if they don't imitate, that could help explain why they have difficulty with language later, Ingersoll said.
The findings are published in the Current Directions in Psychological Science.