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On the Cutting Edge of Autism Treatment

Teaching autistic children how to engage in imaginative play is one of many new techniques in autism treatment.

Starting Early

The earlier this kind of work can begin, the better the outcomes tend to be for autistic children. Autism can usually be diagnosed by 18 months of age, but some scientists hope that in the future, a blood test at birth might detect it.

In May 2005, researchers at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute announced that they had found remarkable differences in blood tests of autistic and nonautistic children. The children had different levels of certain proteins in the blood and more of some kinds of immune cells.

"The idea for early detection is not only that you can intervene early, which is beneficial, but there's the notion that not all children who ultimately have autism are doomed to it at birth," David Amaral, PhD, research director at the MIND Institute, tells WebMD.

Scientists have speculated that maybe something in the environment makes children who are susceptible to autism develop the disorder. If researchers could identify the trigger, avoiding it might prevent autism.

"In some cases the information might allow full-blown prevention, and in other cases more tailored treatment," MIND Institute researcher Blythe Corbett, PhD, tells WebMD.

It's too early, however, to say for sure what the differences seen in the study mean. "We don't know whether our findings indicate a cause or an effect," Amaral says.

It may be that the immune system plays a role in some children's autism, but "there simply is not going to be a single cause," he says. "In fact, we think of autism not as autism, but as autisms."

What's more, the differences may not be specific to autistic children. "You have to show, for example, that it differentiates kids with autism from kids with obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit disorder," says Eric Hollander, MD, director of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Hollander's own research has shown that a particular trait in the immune systems of autistic kids relates to the severity of repetitive behaviors, a common autism symptom. This same trait has been linked to Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Emerging Treatments

Recently, Hollander studied the use of Prozac for treating repetitive behavior in children with autism. Those who took low doses of the drug in liquid form showed better improvement than those who took a placebo. But selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac are not stand-alone treatments for autism.

"The treatment of choice for most individuals is an integrated approach," Hollander tells WebMD.

At the University of California San Francisco, professor Michael Merzenich, PhD, is working on a computer program to teach language skills to autistic kids through what is called "neural retraining." It may sound like science fiction, but it's not all that speculative.

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