We all know how important it is to start working with autistic children as early as possible, but what we have been able to do has been limited by how quickly we can detect the condition. Now, researchers in the US have been able to push that point of discovery back into the earliest days of childhood.
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A study carried out by the Marcus Autism Center along with the Emory University School of Medicine monitored the development of two groups of babies. The first group had a high risk of developing autism, since each baby in the group had a brother or sister who was autistic – this raises the chances of a child having autism by a factor of 20. The second group was low risk, with none of the infants in the group having any close relatives with autism.
Using technology that tracks eye movements, the researchers looked for any differences in the way that babies in the two groups responded to social cues. What they found was that signs of autism showed up at just 2 months of age, with the subsequent autism being confirmed by evaluating each infant for the condition when they reached the age of 3. According to Ami Klin, one of the investigators, “We found a steady decline in attention to other people’s eyes, from 2 until 24 months, in infants later diagnosed with autism. First, these results reveal that there are measurable and identifiable differences present already before 6 months. And second, we observed declining eye fixation over time, rather than an outright absence. Both these factors have the potential to dramatically shift the possibilities for future strategies of early intervention.”
It is the second factor that is so exciting, although it is not completely clear at this point what this will mean for teaching children with autism. In the past, it has been shown that starting to work with autistic children before the age of 18 months can make a profound difference to how they progress in later life. Now, not only do we have a relatively reliable way of detecting the signs of autism well before this time, we are also able to see the condition start to develop. In other words, prior to the onset of symptoms, the babies were showing signs of normal social responses. Not only that, the more rapidly the signs of autism appeared, the more severe the condition. This raises the hope that very early treatment can have a profound influence on the development of autism – by slowing or preventing the onset, the severity of autism may be vastly reduced.
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It is early days yet, but the researchers are planning on expanding their investigations. They intend to look at larger groups of children to reveal more about the development of the full spectrum of autistic disorders, and are also planning on correlating their results with genetic data and information about brain development in the subjects. This may enable them to better understand the triggers that lead to autism – again, pointing the way to potential treatments.