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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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"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.

One autism expert who reviewed the study, however, said it's too early to say such a test is imminent.

"The authors describe their findings as having only 'theoretical implications' at this time," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.

"Although this study may be of some interest to parents and clinicians who care for children with an autism spectrum disorder, there is no clinical justification for parents to pursue any specialized [brain] testing at this time," he said.

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