Researchers are now looking for signs of autism – a neurobiological disorder that presents challenges in social skills, communication and behaviour in children – from as early as six months when the first changes appear.
According to co-director of autism research at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, Dr Wendy Roberts, coping with autism puts an almost insurmountable strain on families. It can destroy family life if it goes untreated.
For this reason Dr Roberts is working to identify early warning signs in children who are eventually diagnosed with autism. She collaborates with scientists who are searching for genetic indications of autism in these children.
They are following families with an autistic child, as their younger siblings are more likely to develop the same disorder. They started out assuming that the recurrence of this disorder would be 5% in siblings, but then discovered that 28% of boys and 8% of girls that were born after an autistic sibling developed some form of autism.
The Autism Observation Scale for Infants can predict the risk of autism in children. Dr Wendy frequently scores the selected children on this scale over a couple of years, up until age three, when a full autism assessment is conducted. This enables her to look back at the earlier years’ results and to then identify the early warning signs.
The first signs are seen when focusing on their faces, Dr Roberts explains. Children who become autistic don’t pay attention to adult’s faces, unlike normal children who usually imitate facial expressions. Other signs could include showing little reaction to fun games or when their names are called, or more obvious signs like taking an unusual interest in certain sensations, such as rubbing a specific surface repeatedly.
The aim is to share this information with the medical community and specifically family doctors who can look out for these early signs when children are brought in for a check-up. The earlier autism is detected, the earlier treatment can start which can minimise the severity and impact that this disorder will have on the child and the family.
Early treatment can be as simple as teaching parents how to deal with the behavioural and social challenges that is already manifesting at an early age, such as how to play and engage with your child and how to deal with issues like commonly occurring aggression.
“What we’d like to see is intervention prior to diagnosis,” Dr Roberts says.