No matter the age of diagnosis, learning that your child has autism is a life-changing moment. While the majority of children with autism get their first diagnosis at age 4 or older, behavioral signs often begin much earlier.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aimed to predict whether or not high-risk children - those who had an older sibling with autism - would also be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A 2011 study illustrated that children who have an older sibling with autism have an 18% higher risk of being diagnosed with autism.
Using functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scans (MRIs), the researchers scanned the brains of 59 six-month-old infants, examining patterns of brain connectivity. They repeated the scans when the children reached two years old. At that time, parents filled out questionnaires, and the researchers assessed the children's social skills, communication behaviors, language abilities, and motor functions. The researchers diagnosed 11 out of the 59 children with autism.
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The researchers then input the brain scans and behavioral test scores into a sophisticated computer algorithm. The computer was able to accurately identify 9 out of the 11 children who had received an autism diagnosis. Equally important, the algorithm did not incorrectly identify any of the children who did not have autism.
Dr. Joseph Piven, senior author of the study, told NBC News, "It's the first marker of any sort, brain or behavior, in infants, to predict which individuals would be classified as autistic at 24 months of age."
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 68 children have autism. Autism is a developmental disability that can cause children to have difficulty with communication, socialization, and behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians begin screening for autism at 18 months of age. However, less than 20% of children are diagnosed by the age of 2.
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The study findings, despite its small size, add some evidence to the idea that autism affects brain signals well before the outward symptoms are noticed. Having an early diagnosis may prove helpful to parents and health care providers. "You can maybe intervene and change the patterns," said UNC researcher Robert Emerson. "We have some idea that the brain is more malleable in infants."
There is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done in this field. While the study illustrates that MRIs may be helpful for diagnosing high-risk children, they are incredibly expensive and not practical for the general population. Further, while predicting autism could prove to be useful, the study does not help in predicting the severity of the disability or what functions might be limited.
Finally, many people with autism embrace some of their differences. As a result, there is controversy surrounding altering those behavioral traits so early in life.