Can a parent's concerns predict autism?


Staff member

(Photo: Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta)

UAlberta researchers find many parents notice signs of autism spectrum disorder in their young children far before an official diagnosis

As co-director of the University of Alberta's Autism Research Centre, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum has devoted much of his career to understanding how to identify autism as early as possible. But despite his years of experience, Zwaigenbaum says many physicians like him would do well to seek other expert advice when working with children not yet diagnosed--that of the parents of these young patients.

"Parents are the experts when it comes to their kids and their observations are really valuable," says Zwaigenbaum. "In some respects, parents are picking up on differences at six and nine months of age that we have a much harder time seeing in the clinic."

Zwaigenbaum, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Department of Pediatrics, along with Lori Sacrey, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pediatrics, are the authors of a new study published in the March edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The study found parents of children at a high risk for autism spectrum disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)) not only reported more early concerns than other parents, but also that those concerns can be predictive of autism spectrum disorder.

The researchers examined the reported concerns of parents from about 300 families for children aged six months to three years old over a 12-year period. The sample included the concerns of parents of children without any heightened risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), as well as the parents of children at high risk (who had an older sibling already diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)). At three years of age all of the children underwent a clinical assessment to determine if they had autism or not. Researchers then looked back at the parent concerns to see if the groups differed on the types of concerns parents had, as well as the number of concerns they had.

"We found that parents whose children ended up being diagnosed at three years of age did report more concerns," says Sacrey. "Interestingly, they reported sensory and motor concerns starting at the age of six months. And then they increasingly reported more language and social concerns at about 12-15 months of age."

"It really highlights the importance of talking to parents and taking their concerns seriously," adds Zwaigenbaum.

The researchers believe that by acting on parental concerns early, health professionals can provide better care for children at risk of autism spectrum disorder.

"Where interventions are concerned, the earlier you can start with the patients, the better the prognosis is," explains Sacrey. "If you can identify a child at a heightened risk earlier, before their first birthday, then you can start working with them to address early developmental difficulties, which can ultimately enhance their skill development and improve their outcomes.

"Parents play a critical role in implementing these interventions, building learning opportunities into everyday caregiving and play activities."

Study Reference: University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

Journal: Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of ConductDisorders or its staff.


Well-Known Member
Well... about 18 years too late for MY family, but FINALLY, somebody has validated what parents have been saying all along. We DO know when something isn't quite right. We may not know why, or who to turn to, or how to help, but we KNOW something is "off". Nice to get validation!