Though parents of children with autism can notice problems even before the child’s first birthday, a formal diagnosis cannot usually be made until the child is at least 24 months old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screening for autism happens at his 18-month and 24-month checkup, but most get diagnosed at age 4. (Behavioral red flags include trouble pointing at objects and avoiding eye contact.) The waiting can leave parents anxious; even worse, it causes delays in therapy and support that the child needs. The findings of a recently published study, however, offers tremendous promise that this may be about to change.
Researchers have found that they may be able to predict autism in the brain scans of children below the age of 2 by looking at the pace of the child’s brain development. Infants who had faster brain growth than was typical were more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) later on.
Published in the journal Nature, the study involved analyzing MRI scans from two groups of infants. There was the high-risk group consisting of 106 babies who had a sibling with autism. Their chances of developing the disorder were at one in five. Then there was the low-risk group with 42 babies without immediate family members with the condition. Their risks were one in 100.
The scans were taken at six, 12, and 24 months old. Researchers measured overall brain volume and surface area, among others. Based on the data and by devising an algorithm unique to the study, they were able to predict that 80 percent of 15 high-risk babies would show symptoms of the condition. They also made near-perfect predictions as to which children would not develop ASD.
Previous studies have already shown that compared to others, the brains of children with autism were larger and grew more by age 2. This research suggests “that brain overgrowth was happening before 2,” Dr. Joseph Piven, a senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CNN.
The study, it should be emphasized, is a small one; a lot more research with larger samplings is needed to confirm the results. But it has gotten scientists and health professionals excited because early detection is crucial in developmental conditions like autism.
“One of the things that have been shown over and over again is, the earlier you can begin an intervention the greater the chance of limiting some of the characteristics of autism," Mathew T. Pletcher, vice president and head of genomic discovery at the advocacy group Autism Speaks, told CNN.
“You will not lose anything with early consultation with professionals,” says Dr. Lourdes C. Sumpaico-Tanchanco, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at The Medical City, and faculty member of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health. “Early intervention gives you the opportunity to improve your child’s later outcome.”
Want to learn more about ASD? Find our quick guide for parents on this spectrum disorder here.