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Development of babies without autism can tell us a lot about autism

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Overview and Implications

Dr. Sarah Shultz and her colleagues compiled recent research on the development of infants in their first six months of life to form a comprehensive behavioral list for normative development. Knowing these growth trajectories may give us insights into the mechanisms of autism and lead to earlier detection. The most significant finding was that at around two months of age, infants transfer from reflexive to voluntary behavior. From here on, there is exponential growth in a baby’s cognitive ability. Adults with autism often have deficiencies in actions that are otherwise present during this time of development. Therefore, the review concludes that future autism research should focus on the critical developmental stages that occur around two months of age.

Although the research presented here is not novel, the way Dr. Shultz crafted this story of the typical progression of infant behavior gives us a milestone that allows a new detection method for autism. Since early diagnosis can have a positive cascading effect on an individual, being able to start intervention sessions starting at two months would be life-changing for many families. Dr. Shultz herself followed up on this review paper and found through experimental fRMI data that revealed specific changes in neural two to three-month infants was characterized by rapid behavioral changes (Shultz et. al., 2014). This validates her claim that there should be a further dedication to examining these critical early months of life.


The review does an excellent job of presenting the normative development of an infant through chronological and categorical behavioral stages. Since the paper potentially serves as a starting point different branches of autism research, many fields of science are discussed. I loved how Dr. Shultz not only touches on behavior but also related differences are found in brain structure and even evolutionary psychology. Dr. Shultz and her colleagues even make suggest a hypothesis specific to eye orientation at two months of age. This hypothesis is widened and she calls for other scientists to pay attention to key early developmental transitions which are exciting and can prompt novel research. This gives a specific and supported research question a curious scientist may tackle.

The paper could have emphasized why early detection is important, especially since the goal was to identify early milestones so we can flag abnormal behaviors. This information would be useful for someone who is not an autism researcher nor familiar with treatment options. Furthermore, elaboration may persuade pediatricians or parents to test for autism earlier which is currently an issue. Additionally, in the greater context of autism research, this paper serves to convince other researchers to dedicate time to find differences in the development of infants with and without autism. If Shultz were to add a section of preliminary research, her paper’s message would be more potent.

Future Directions

This paper gives a specific and experimentally supported time when discrepancies between normal and developmentally delayed infants arise. An interesting detail was social smiling and facial recognition. Facial recognition, which arises around two, is correlated to a decrease in reflective smiling and an increase in social smiling (Bard et. al., 2014). It would be worthwhile to see if a simple test such as a smile test at two months of age can flag an infant with potential Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

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