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Researchers Identify Red Flag for Autism in Infants

A new study has found that weak head and neck control in infants is a red flag for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as language and social developmental delays.

Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute suggest that a simple “pull-to-sit” task — a simple measure of posture control in infants — could be added to existing developmental screenings at pediatric well visits to improve early detection of developmental delays.

The researchers studied two groups of infants. The first consisted of 40 infants, ages 5.6 to 10 months, considered to be at high genetic risk because a sibling had autism. The research team examined the baby’s ability to maintain head alignment when being carefully, yet firmly, pulled by the arms from lying flat on his or her back to a sitting position.

Infants were scored according to whether their head maintained alignment with the spine, or was in front of the spine, during the task. Lack of this head control indicated head lag, according to Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., study author and director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

The researchers also tested the children for head lag at 14 and 24 months, as well as at 30 and 36 months, the age that a diagnosis of ASD is considered definitive.

The study found that:

  • 90 percent of those diagnosed with ASD exhibited head lag as infants;
  • 54 percent of children meeting criteria for social or communication delay had exhibited head lag as infants, and;
  • 35 percent of children not meeting the criteria for social or communication delay or ASD exhibited head lag at 6 months.

In the second group, researchers examined 6-month-olds at a single point in time for the presence of head lag. They found that 75 percent of high-risk infants exhibited head lag, compared to 33 percent of low-risk infants.

“Our findings show that the evaluation of motor skills should be incorporated with other behavioral assessments to yield insights into the very earliest signs of autism,” said Landa.

Source: Kennedy Krieger Institute

Researchers Identify Red Flag for Autism in Infants

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Researchers Identify Red Flag for Autism in Infants. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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