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
By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, May 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- There may be a simple way to help spot signs of autism early on in siblings of children with the disorder, new research suggests.
The study, which included 184 children at high risk of autism, found that those who developed the disorder typically started showing some "red flags" as early as 12 months of age.
Specifically, they had an unusually high rate of repetitive behaviors, such as flapping their hands or arms, rocking back and forth, or focusing obsessively on one toy.
Some amount of repetitive behavior is normal for babies, said lead researcher Jason Wolff, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"But in typically developing children, that usually peaks around the age of 6 months," said Wolff, who is scheduled to present his findings on Saturday at the International Meeting for Autism Research, in Atlanta.
"In children who go on to develop autism, repetitive behavior is still highly prevalent, or even increasing, at the age of 12 months," Wolff said.
Wolff said an advantage of looking at repetitive behaviors is that parents can report on them with a simple "pen-and-pencil measure." And it's possible that such a tool could be used to screen for autism in average-risk children, too, he added.
More research is needed before repetitive behavior can be used as part of an early screening tool, according to Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"This is a promising observation, but it needs refinement before it can be turned into something clinically useful," said Adesman, who was not involved in the study.
Wolff agreed. For one, he said, his team wants to fine-tune the way repetitive behavior is measured. And any screening tool would have to not only reliably catch autism, but also have a low risk of "false positives."
"But this study is a good start," Wolff said.
The precise causes of autism are not clear, but genes are involved. When a child has autism, his or her siblings are at high risk themselves -- with a roughly 20 percent chance of developing the disorder, Wolff noted.
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.