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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

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Mary Elizabeth Dallas

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, May 29 (HealthDay News) -- Early brain responses to words may help predict future abilities in children with autism, a new study suggests.

"We showed that a simple measure of how the brain responds to a familiar word taken at 2 years of age was a strong predictor of children's language, social and cognitive abilities ... at 6 years of age," said study co-author Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired communication, difficulty with social interactions and repetitive behaviors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 88 U.S. children has some form of autism, which can range from mild to severe.

"In this study, we were interested in understanding why some children with autism make rapid progress whereas others progress more slowly," Dawson said. "For example, many children with autism are able to develop spoken language, whereas about 20 percent to 30 percent remain minimally verbal or nonverbal.

"Recent studies have shown that nonverbal children can be helped to develop spoken language if they are given special alternative devices -- such as an iPad or other speech-generating device -- as part of their early intervention program," Dawson added. "But we don't know how to identify which children are likely to need extra help."

The study, published May 29 in the journal PLoS ONE, involved 44 children, all of whom were 2 years old. Twenty-four had autism and 20 did not. The children were asked to listen to a mix of familiar and unfamiliar words while wearing sensors, which measured their brain responses.

The children with autism were divided into two groups based on the level of their social impairment. The brain responses of the children with autism with milder symptoms were similar to the brain responses of the children who did not have autism, the researchers found. These children had a strong response to known words in a specific area of the left side of the brain called the temporal parietal region, which is responsible for language.

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.

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