One of the many frustrating aspects of autism is that symptoms often don't appear until children are around two years of age. For unsuspecting parents, the diagnosis is devastating, in no small part because delaying treatment for autistic children during these formative years can have lasting repercussions on their ability to learn and interact normally with their surroundings.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that British researchers have developed new tests that can now detect autism in children as young as six months old. The study, conducted by the University of London, tested 104 babies with autistic siblings at 6 to 10 months and again at 3 years old to test their brain activity when a person was looking at them or looking away. Placing passive sensors on their scalps to register brain activity, the researchers found that babies who had little brain activity whether someone was making eye contact or not were most likely to have developed autistic symptoms by 3 years old.
While the researchers cautioned that the predictive markers were not 100 percent accurate, the study demonstrates the mounting pressure being placed on scientists to find ways to diagnose autism earlier. In Australia, scientists are conducting studies to see if there are prenatal markers that can determine the disorder before babies are even born. As numbers continue to skyrocket—a May 2011 study conducted by Young-Shin Kim of Yale University concluded that up to one in 38 children may be affected today, up from previous estimates of one in 100—concerned parents are increasingly looking out for any symptoms that might be an indication. As Nancy Wiseman, mother of an autistic child and founder of First Signs, says in Parents, early intervention could be the difference between a child eventually being mainstreamed in school or not.
Meanwhile, the definition of autism is changing. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the new definition may exclude many higher-functioning autistic children. With a new definition that is bound to be more exclusive than inclusive, many children could find themselves bereft of the social services as school and education budgets continue to get slashed. As Nicholas Taylor, who works with autistic children, writes in The Guardian, the benefits of early recognition of autism for improved access to services will only bear fruit if those services continue to exist for everyone falling within the spectrum.
"It is often said that people with autism have more needs than the rest of us, whereas in my experience they simply seem a lot more clear about expressing what their needs actually are..." says Taylor. "By all means offer parents the test to see whether their newborns might be on the autistic spectrum. But don't imagine this is where our involvement in autism begins and ends."