On Alex Wiseman's first birthday, his picture showed the face of a kid, his parents now say, on which autism was obvious. Though obvious now, they missed it back then.
Missing indications of autism is, unfortunately, a common problem; one that a leading advocacy group for Autism, Autism Speaks, wants to change.
To aid in doing this, it has launched a Web site contrasting typical behavior with autistic behavior in children. The Web site, called Red Flags of Autism, shows specific examples of behaviors in children 2 years and younger that may indicate autism.
Some of these red flags include lack of eye contact, lack of language and lack of interest in two-way communication with those around the child. These were symptoms that Alex Wiseman, an autistic 6-year-old, exhibited as early as a year old.
Though Alex Wiseman has now been diagnosed with autism and is being treated, his parents missed the subtle warnings when he was younger. His mother, Jodi, recalls Alex appearing disconnected at his first birthday party.
"It struck me as odd that he wasn't very involved in his own birthday party because there was cake. He loved cake, he loved presents. Our family was there, and he was always connected to family but for some reason, he just wasn't there that day. It struck me as odd that he was disconnected," she recalled.
Though it struck her as odd, she didn't realize that this disconnection indicated autism.
Autism is often not diagnosed until the age of 4 or 5, because the symptoms can be quite subtle and resemble behaviors of nonautistic children. Oftentimes, behaviors of autistic children are simply labeled "fussy" or "quirky."
This is why Dr. Amy Wetherby, co-director of the First Word Project, a research project that tests young children for autism, began collecting the video that would become part of the Red Flags of Autism Web site.
One clip on the Web site shows a video of a nonautistic child of 12 months playing with a wind-up toy. This child can follow instructions and make eye contact with a clinician present who asks questions. The same clip shows a video of an autistic child of 18 months presented with the same situation. But when the autistic child is instructed by the clinician, he remains focused on the wind-up toy, not making eye contact or following the clinician's instructions.
Wetherby believes that showing these video clips help to lower the age at which children are diagnosed, and thereby increase their chances to improve.
"It's important because we want to improve early identification...Early identification then helps families access early intervention. And there is research to show that if you can start intervention earlier, then children on the autism spectrum will do better," said Wetherby.
Jodi Wiseman believes that if the Red Flags of Autism Web site had been around earlier, she could have intervened and begun treating her son earlier.
"Had the autism spectrum videos been available a few years ago, when Alex was still a toddler, I think it would have helped me in a lot of ways. I think … I would've had much more intervention and correct intervention at a young age" she said.
While the Red Flags of Autism would have been a welcome resource for the Wiseman family, critics worry that putting up videos like these could confuse and panic new parents unnecessarily.
"I would be worried if parents used this as a diagnostic tool to look at a single part and say my child does this, my child is autistic," Dr. Patricia Granier, a pediatrician at Ochsner Medical Center in Louisiana said.
Despite this criticism, Wetherby is adamant that these videos are the best way to demonstrate to parents the early symptoms of autism.
"There is no biological marker for autism spectrum disorders and so in order to make the diagnosis, the only way we can do that right now is to look for a set of behavioral features," Wetherby said.
Wetherby believes the videos are crucial and can more clearly indicate autism, than the written literature describing these symptoms does.
"It is difficult to just read the definitions and understand what they mean. So what we've tried to do with the video is illustrate the definition," said Wetherby.
Jodi Wiseman wishes these videos had been around earlier and believes she would have been better equipped to help Alex had they been.
"I definitely wish I had the education earlier. I feel had I had the education earlier, then maybe Alex would have a brighter future," she said.