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New Breakthrough Might Detect Autism at a Much Earlier Age

As of now Autism can be diagnosed in children as young as 2 years old, but it is often not diagnosed until later.


Autism, once a misunderstood disorder that saw millions of sufferers go undiagnosed and had little understanding in the general population, has become more widely reported on and explained in recent years. This has helped people on the autism spectrum get by in the world as more and more people know how to recognize the condition and understand it when they see people with difficulties in social situations and with communication.

Until now, it has typically taken until the age of five to diagnose the disorder in children. But now scientists from the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta say they have found a way to detect it in children between the ages of 16 – 30 months. They have done so by observing the way that the children observe and look at things, developing a method of measuring children’s “looking behavior.”

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“The results show that the way in which young children look at social information can serve as an effective and objective biomarker for early signs of autism,” said the lead author of the study Warren Jones, director of research at Marcus Autism Center.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. It is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Autism can be diagnosed in children as young as 2 years old, but it is often not diagnosed until later. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for autism, but early intervention can help improve a child’s development.

According to the authors of the new study, approximately 1 in 36 US children is affected by autism.1 Thirty percent of parents of children with autism had concerns for their child’s development before age 12 months, 50% of parents had concerns by age 18 months, and 80% had concerns by age 2 years.2-4 Despite these early concerns and the manifest behaviors that elicited these concerns, the median age of US diagnosis remains delayed until the age of 4 to 5 years.5,6 The age of diagnosis is even later among those who lack resources or lack access to expert clinicians: diagnoses for US racial minority families, families with low income, and families residing in rural areas lag further.

The researchers performed 2 prospective double-blind studies of diagnostic performance in 1089 children aged 16 to 30 months, 719 in discovery and 370 in replication. In these studies they found eye-tracking–based measurements of social visual engagement relative to expert clinical diagnosis had area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.90, sensitivity of 81.9%, and specificity of 89.9% in discovery; and area under the curve of 0.89, sensitivity of 80.6%, and specificity of 82.3% in replication.

The scientists said that the results offer the prospect of an objective biomarker to aid in autism diagnosis and assessment.

“The far-reaching implications of these results may mean that children who currently have limited access to expert care, and face two or more years of waiting and referrals before finally being diagnosed at age four or five, may now be eligible for diagnosis between the ages of 16 and 30 months,” co-author of the study Ami Klin, the division chief of autism and developmental disabilities at Emory University School of Medicine, said. “In addition, this technology measures each child’s individual levels of social disability, verbal ability and non-verbal learning ability, which is critical information for clinicians when developing personalized treatment plans to help each child make the greatest gains.”



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