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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Word Tests May Predict Gains for Kids With Autism

Toddlers' brain responses corresponded with later language, thinking and self-care skills
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This suggests that children with less severe symptoms can process words in much the same way as typically developing children, the study authors said.

Children with more severe social impairments, however, showed brain responses more broadly over the right hemisphere. The researchers said this is not usually seen in healthy children of any age.

The children's language skills, thinking abilities and social and emotional development also were assessed at age 2 and again at ages 4 and 6.

Over time and with intensive treatment, the children with autism improved on the behavioral tests, but individual gains varied widely, the researchers found. The more the autistic children's brain responses resembled those of typically developing children, the greater the improvement in their skills by age 6.

"Essentially, children who showed a different brain response from the left hemisphere to a known versus unknown word made better progress by age 6," Dawson said. "This measure may help us identify early on which children could benefit from extra help, such as an alternative communication device, so that they can have the best possible long-term outcome."

Study lead author Patricia Kuhl, of the University of Washington in Seattle, said in a university news release: "We think this measure signals that the 2-year-old's brain has reorganized itself to process words.

"This reorganization depends on the child's ability to learn from social experiences," said Kuhl, who is co-director of the university's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. She said, however, that researchers are still a long way from identifying a brain marker that can help predict future autism diagnoses.

In previous studies, Kuhl found that social interactions promote language learning in babies. For children with autism, social impairments prevent them from picking up on social cues, the researchers said. As a result, they pay attention to objects and other things rather than people.

"Social learning is what most humans are about," Kuhl said. "If your brain can learn from other people in a social context, you have the capability to learn just about anything."

Kuhl thinks the latest findings could lead to measures that might help identify children at risk for autism by the age of 1 year or younger. "This line of work may lead to new interventions applied early in development, when the brain shows its highest level of neural plasticity," she said.

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