- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

CHICAGO (AP) — Within days of birth, healthy babies will look you in the eye. By 4 months, they will delight in others. And by 9 months, they will exchange smiles.

Jacob Day did none of those things.

“We used to say it was like it burned his eyes to look at you,” said his mother, Tamie Day of Antelope, Calif. “It was like a physically painful thing for him. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t looking at us; he was purposefully looking away.”

Mrs. Day, who has a psychology degree, suspected her son might have autism. She enrolled him in a study, published last month, that found that babies are indeed at high risk for autism if they do not respond to their names by 12 months.

At 18 months, he was formally diagnosed with autism, about a year earlier than usual. Before he turned 2, Jacob began daily intensive behavior treatment designed to help him lead a more normal life.

He is part of a growing field in psychiatry called infant mental health. Doctors and scientists are increasingly looking for early signs in babies of autism, attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and other mental problems that a generation ago, scarcely anyone thought could appear in children so young.

Some scientists think that intensive treatment in some susceptible babies can prevent autism, attention-deficit disorder and other problems.

An influential Institute of Medicine report in 2000 helped energize this idea. The report emphasized the plasticity of babies’ brains. It also explained how interacting with babies can change their brain wiring.

“We used to say ‘nature versus nurture,’ but now people really think it’s ‘nature through nurture,’ ” said Dr. Lawrence Gray of the University of Chicago.

Mrs. Day noticed the first ominous clue the night she and her husband, Chris, brought Jacob home.

“We walked in the door, and he wouldn’t stop looking at our ceiling fan,” she said. “The next day, that’s all he would look at.”

Babies typically begin making eye contact soon after birth, and “understand at a basic, perhaps hard-wired level, that eyes are special — they look more at eyes than at other parts of the face,” said Sally Ozonoff, an autism specialist at the University of California at Davis’ Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute.

For Jacob, there was no pointing, no clapping, no shared smiles, and when he would laugh, it seemed like his own private joke. So his parents sought out UC-Davis specialists, who gave them the heartbreaking diagnosis.

Jacob, now 3, has made meaningful progress thanks to treatment, his mother said.

Interest in infant mental health has been boosted by awareness of the prevalence of attention-deficit disorders and autism, which government officials said in February affects 1 in 150 U.S. children and may be more common than previously thought.

Last month, researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders presented a report emphasizing earlier diagnosis and treatment.

The report said that about 17 percent of U.S. children have a developmental disability such as autism, mental retardation and attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, but fewer than half are diagnosed before starting school.

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