The signs that a child has autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, normally start to appear when they are around two years of age. But if doctors could diagnose ASD at a much earlier age, then steps could be taken before it has fully manifested that may allow both child and family manage the condition better.
Researchers now think that they could identify those most at risk of developing autism within the first year of a child’s life. The study, published this week in Nature, looked at the brain scans of 106 babies who came from families that already had a child with autism. From these scans taken at both six and 12 months of age, they then identified markers in the brains that predicted whether or not the child will develop ASD.
“Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” explains Joseph Piven in a statement. “Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”
If scientists are able to diagnose autism in children before it manifests itself, it may also allow for researchers to begin other studies looking into potential ways to prevent it from forming in the first place. The causes behind the condition are still unknown (despite what you may here from incredibly dubious films currently on release), with explanations ranging from underlying genetics to different ways in which the brain develops, although it is likely to be a mixture of factors involved.
Autism is generally seen as a condition that is more common in boys than in girls, but this is now being challenged. Part of the reason behind the skew may simply be down to the fact that this imbalance between the sexes is expected, and so when girls display behaviors indicative of autism they are often missed. It could also be that girls are simply better at masking them. But this is now being acknowledged, and better understood, and some even predict that in the UK alone there may be as many as 100,000 undiagnosed girls with autism, who are not getting the support they desperately need.
The results are still very early stage, and the researchers do not recommend rolling the technique out into clinics any time soon, but it could now form a basis for further research to investigate these early cues that may help speed up diagnoses. It could at least give parents an indication that they should be looking out for the signs of ASD as the child grows.