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Autism: New Clue to Earlier Detection

Researchers Find Autism Attention Difference That May Start Very Early, Which May Lead to Earlier Detection and New Therapies
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 29, 2009 -- A surprise discovery is leading autism researchers at Yale University toward earlier detection and new therapies for children with autism -- possibly beginning in infancy.

That discovery is all about key differences in what captures the attention of children with autism compared to other kids.

Those differences are in place by the time kids are 2 years old and may start much younger, note the scientists, who included Ami Klin, PhD, and Warren Jones, PhD, of the Yale Child Study Center. 

"We know that the earlier we are able to detect autism and intervene, the more likely we are to optimize the child's outcome," Klin tells WebMD by email. "Our hope is to detect vulnerabilities for autism as early as possible, so as to intervene with the hope to capitalize on the babies' brain malleability."

Thomas Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (which funded the new study), agrees. 

"For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with ASDs [autism spectrum disorders]," Insel says in a news release. "In addition to the potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research holds promise for the development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders."

New Autism Study

The new study was inspired by a 15-month-old girl with autism who puzzled Klin and Jones.

Klin and Jones showed the girl videos of an adult, shown as a stick figure outlined by points of light on his body, moving around and talking. In some of the videos, the figure was right-side-up; in other videos, the image was upside down.

The little girl wasn't all that interested in either video -- until the figure started clapping his hands while singing the "pat-a-cake" nursery rhyme. That caught her attention.

At first, Klin and Jones weren't sure what was going on. Then, after checking their data, they realized that the girl was more interested in audio-visual synchronicity -- the figure moving in time with the clapping -- than in the figure's other movements.

In new experiments, the researchers studied a larger group of 2-year-olds with autism, as well as typically developing kids and children with developmental disabilities other than autism.

Once again, the autistic children showed a preference for audio-visual synchronicity in the "pat-a-cake" videos, while the other children were more interested in the figure's movements regardless of audio-visual synchronicity.

That pattern could be a clue about brain development and early signs of autism.

Klin explains that within a few days after birth, typically developing children prefer watching biological motion -- the movement of living beings, such as their parents -- and that preference is an important survival skill and a building block for relationships.

But Klin's group found that autistic children were more interested in "nonsocial contingencies," which are synchronicities that don't have any social meaning -- like two balls colliding and making a sound, or a stone falling when someone drops it.

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