Two recent studies offer further insights in detecting autism in very young children. One study, by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, used computer analyses of MRI scans and found that the brains of the autistic children in the study have a distinctive topography.
Vinod Menon, a professor of neurology and psychiatry who led the Stanford study, even says that the study could yield a potential biomarker for autism, something that scientists and clinicians have been particularly interested in finding. Autism is currently diagnosed via behavioral observations by medical professionals and often not until children are three years old. Many contend that getting an autistic child started on therapies and treatments as soon as possible can make a significant impact on their development and future and would welcome a biological method to diagnose autism.
Scientists warn that the results are far from being applied to real children. But they could be used not just for diagnoses, but to refine treatments and offer a better understanding of how autism affects the brain. Dr. Antonio Hardan, a child psychiatrist and an author of the Stanford study said, “Older kids, you just talk to them and you know they have autism. But the 2-year-old where you don’t have a good idea what’s going on with him, whether he’s autistic or not, this tool could help…And having this kind of tool might also help you determine what kind of treatment the individual will be getting.”
The Stanford study looked at the brain scans of 24 autistic children between ages 8 and 18, and compared them with scans of 24 children without autism. The study sectioned the scans into tiny cubes and then used computer analysis to compare the size and structure of individual cubes in autistic and non-autistic brains. That allowed scientists to get a much more detailed picture of the specific areas that differ between the brains. The resulting brain maps applied to 80 to 90 percent of the children with autism. If the maps can be replicated in a larger group of children and in children at a younger age, they could be used to help diagnose autism.
Lucina Uddin, first author of a new study and instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, said that researchers could discriminate between “typically developing and autistic children with 92 percent accuracy,” according to the volume of gray matter in the brain.
The study has been published in Biological Psychiatry.
Another study about early detection of autism has yet to be published. It is based on findings presented at the British Psychological Society’s Developmental Section Conference in Newcastle, UK, according to Science Daily, and concerns detecting autism in 7-month-old children.
Researchers observed younger siblings of autistic children and found that those with “poorer motor skills” were more likely to be “at risk” for being autistic:
The researchers assessed the infants using a longitudinal follow-up design at 7, 14, and 24 months. Two groups of infants participated in the study: (1) 54 infants at-risk of a diagnosis of ASD based on a sibling diagnosis and (2) 50 low-risk infants without a diagnosed sibling. The infants were assessed on a range of standardised measures of motor skills. Parent reports were also documented.
Statistical analyses revealed that the at-risk group had significantly poorer motor skills than the low-risk group detected as early as 7 months old. Both gross motor skills such as the ability to hold up the head/roll over/walk and fine motor skills such as grasping and manipulating small objects were found to be poorer in the group of children at-risk for the disorder. This poorer motor ability was still evident at the 24 month assessment stage.
My own 14-year-old son Charlie was diagnosed when he was just turning two years old. This was back in 1999 and many people said that Charlie was “just too young” to receive such a severe diagnosis. But we knew Charlie was not developing typically. He was in a day care in St. Paul at the time and it was clear that he was not communicating or playing as the other children were. While we’ve met many families whose autistic children were “right on time” developing gross motor skills, Charlie was always delayed, rolling over at nine months and walking at sixteen months. One reason he struggled to roll over was that, when we placed him on his stomach, Charlie (who liked to sleep on his back), struggled to hold his (very large) head up.
Certainly it was wrenching to admit and accept that Charlie was autistic. But having him diagnosed was the first step in getting him started on therapies and education that have been invaluable. Had we known what we do from the two new studies above, perhaps Charlie might have been diagnosed even earlier.
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