Undoing Autism One Toy at a Time
Spotting Autism in Babies continued...
In their race to be first, the Marcus Center team has plenty of friendly competition.
At the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), researchers have already deployed a new questionnaire that pediatricians can use to screen babies as young as 12 months of age. They’re also working on a different kind of eye-tracking test.
At UCSD and Harvard, doctors are working on blood tests to catch babies at risk. The UCSD test correctly identified boys as young as 12 months of age who were later diagnosed with autism about 83% of the time. That’s a higher rate of accuracy than the questionnaire that many parents fill out at 18-month well baby visits, the MCHAT-R (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised), according to the study authors. Other groups of researchers at Duke, Harvard, and the University of Washington think it may be possible to identify infants with autism by measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they watch videos.
Timing of Help Is Key
Getting to children earlier is crucial. Study after study shows that babies at risk who get intensive, early behavioral therapy, well before they start preschool, fare much better than children who are found and treated later. Eventually, some may not even be considered autistic anymore.
Researchers are careful to qualify these studies. Some children with autism seem to improve over time even without extra help. It’s not possible to know for sure if early behavior therapy changed their fates.
But studies that have followed similar groups of babies who didn’t get early therapy are compelling. In one small study, only 1 child out of 7 who participated in an early intervention program went on to be diagnosed with autism by age 3, compared to 3 out of 4 kids in a group that didn't get this kind of treatment.
“Unfortunately, autism is really no different than any other medical issue. If you have cancer, the earlier you catch it, the better your prognosis is,” says Liz Brown, an Atlanta mother whose son, George, was diagnosed with the disorder when he was 2-and-a-half.