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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Early Repetitive Behaviors May Signal Autism Risk

Research in siblings of children with autism may give parents a way to spot signs of the disorder earlier
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And there's a "great need" for ways to spot those children early, he said. In general, Wolff noted, the earlier that speech and behavioral therapies for autism can be started, the better children do in the long run.

But until now, researchers haven't looked at whether repetitive behavior can serve as an early red flag.

"At one time, people thought repetitive behavior didn't really show up until preschool," Wolff said. But recent research, including the current study, has shown that to be untrue.

For the study, Wolff's team followed 59 children at average risk of autism and 184 who were at high risk because an older sibling had the disorder. When the children were 12 and 24 months old, their parents completed a standard questionnaire on repetitive behaviors.

Overall, 42 of the high-risk children were diagnosed with autism at age 2. And those children had shown many more repetitive behaviors at the age of 12 months -- an average of four to eight different types, Wolff said, versus one or two for kids without an autism diagnosis.

Still, that's an average difference between two groups, Adesman pointed out. The trick, he said, is to turn that into an assessment that can reliably spot the individual kids who will develop autism.

"There's a risk you could identify too many kids, and give some of them services that they don't need," Adesman said.

He agreed, though, on the need for early screening tools, and said this study points to one potential way.

Researchers are looking into other ways, too. In a separate study reported at the meeting, a team at Boston Children's Hospital used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to gauge brain activity in 208 babies and toddlers. They found that the readings, taken with electrodes on the scalp, were able to distinguish high-risk youngsters from children at average risk of autism.

And in some cases, the EEG readings were able to separate children who went on to develop autism from those who didn't.

Because findings from both studies were presented at a meeting and not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, the results should be considered preliminary.

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