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New UK Study Hopes to Lead to Early Autism Diagnosis

New UK Study Hopes to Lead to Early Autism Diagnosis

A group of scientists from Durham University are recruiting at least forty newborn babies, to help with a new study looking at the development of autism.

Although the babies will not be medically tested for autism, information extracted from these tests may help scientists better understand how babies learn as well as offer clues on how autism develops in babies.

-We are not doing any medical testing in this study but purely looking at babies’ brains from an academic point of view, -said Dr Vincent Reid who is leader of the study and psychologist at Durham University.

The research group includes babies of up to ten weeks old.

Leaders of the study say that as part of this investigation, -non-invasive, harmless and painless tests will be conducted.

The young participants will wear an intricately designed cap comprising multi-coloured sensors. These sensor-filled caps will monitor the baby’s brain activities. The sensors will record data as the baby moves. From the data presented, scientists may understand how and why some children are diagnosed as autistic.

While being held, these babies will -walk’ through a small bath of water. The babies will watch digitalised images of people walking. As this takes place, the sensors will track the baby’s brain activity to show how babies learn and react to seeing someone else walk. These results will be compared to babies with no experience of -walking.’

According to Reid, more evidence is essential to understand how an infant’s brain develops and how infants react. Furthermore, more information is crucial in understanding how infants learn from other people.

-More learning about the world takes place during infancy than at any other time in development, and understanding how exactly this takes place is critical, Reid added.  He hopes that these findings will assist recognizing autism from an early age.

“While there is no cure for autism, interventions can take place to assist the condition.  At present, autism is not detected in infants until they are around three years of age,” he said. “This research should help us to learn how to possibly detect the condition at an earlier age.”

According to Reid, how babies learn is important for both parents and carers. It provides a better understanding on how the brain reacts to social information, something which is critical in the early detection of autism.


About Autism

Autism is a complex developmental disorder that is evident in the first three years of life. Autism spectrum disorder [ASD] ,also referred to as Pervasive Development Disorder [PDD] is collection of developmental disabilities. This disability becomes problematic in performing social customs.  It is a -spectrum’ disorder because it affects people in numerous ways.

The three most common ASDs include:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder

In South Africa, about 270,000 people are diagnosed as autistic. Autism South African estimates that this year, 7665 babies will develop autism.

This is a long-term condition affecting the brain’s development of social and communication skills. It’s a wide spectrum disorder which means that there are variations of autism. Some people may be able live their lives more independently than others. In the same way, people with autism experience varying learning disabilities. Those with High Functioning Autism [HFA] or Asperger syndrome usually have an above average intelligence. The two conditions are similar in nature.

Unlike people with autism, those with Asperger syndrome may be aware of their disability. These individuals, rather than being reclusive, may have a desire for forming friendships. Knowledge of their disability and wanting to be perceived as socially -normal’ may lead to inner anxiety for those with Asperger syndrome.

However, people with autism share three common difficulties. These are often called the -triad of impairments.’


Problems with social communication

People with autism face difficulties socially. Some of these difficulties include:

  • Lack of wanting to communicate with others
  • May avoid looking at other people
  • Inability to interpret tones of voice
  • May not respond to humour or sarcasm
  • Literal interpretation of speech
  • Conversations are about his own needs rather than social engagement
  • Expressing factual comments that are not in context with the actual conversation


Problems with social relationships

Because people with autism may appear to be socially detached, forming relationships with others is difficult. They lack the understanding that individuals have feelings and thoughts which come to play in social relationships. Typical examples of this behavior include:

  • Insensitive to the feelings of another individuals
  • Reclusive behavior
  • Oblivious to the way one must communicate with different people from friends to people of authority
  • Although wanting to have friends, has difficulty with upholding friendships
  • Difficulty interpreting social behavior. This includes verbal and non-verbal.
  • Showing inappropriate behavior as it may not be easy for them to express feelings or needs.


Problems with social imagination

People with autism may have a strong need for routine. With this desire, imagining situations outside of the expected is difficult for an autistic individual to grasp.  Social imagination helps individuals predict social situations by observing people’s behavior. This means that autism leads to difficulties in:

  • Interpreting and appreciating peoples thoughts, words and actions
  • Will interpret things with literal meaning; leaving no space for humor or sarcasm
  • Planning for the future
  • Understanding the seriousness of possible danger  threats

Today, experts have not entirely deciphered the ultimate cause(s) of autism. However, many studies suggest that these may be associated with genetic or environmental causes. Factors associated with these possible causes may lead to this neurological disorder.

With the help of the Durham University study, experts may be able to detect this condition earlier. Although there is no cure for autism, researchers are still positive that these finding s may help treat and understand the disorder a whole lot better.


Useful contacts

Autism South Africa

011 484 9909


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