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Early signs of autism discovered in a woman's diary

A meticulous diary kept by a mother of twins has revealed indicators of autistic behavior in children as young as six months of age. The findings are published in the journal Neurocase.

Mel Rutherford, assistant professor of psychology at McMaster University, says the diary provides a rare and unprecedented opportunity to observe the early development of autism. She says the mother of fraternal twins recorded her observations almost daily for about five years, beginning before the twins' birth. She charted the children's development in speech, social interactions, growth and sleep disturbances, unaware that one twin was autistic until a diagnosis was made at three years of age.

"It appears that children with autism develop normally for six months, and then begin developing atypically," says Rutherford. "As typical children begin to accelerate in social development, the child with autism makes only minor gains."

During the first six months, both twins smiled, engaged in socially responsive vocalization, and showed a preference for family members over other people. By the age of one, however, the male twin showed less eye contact, less verbal communication, and less affection toward others than did his sister. His sleep patterns were also noticeably different from his sister's. By the age of two, the boy had developed a fixation on particular patterns and puzzles; at age three, a child psychologist noted the boy "did not offer comfort if others are in distress and will not come for comfort if he is hurt." The mother's diary tells of her son's facial expressions that ranged from limited to "spaced-out".

The twins are now 12 years old. Rutherford reports that the female twin is doing well, and read an early draft of Rutherford's research manuscript. The male twin "continues to struggle with language development, but is usually a happy child." The twins' mother has started a nation-wide organization that funds autism research.

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