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If someone asked you to define autism, could you? Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, approximately one out of every two thousand children had autism.[1] As of today, doctors have identified that 1 in 68 children have some form of autism.[2] The huge spike in recent decades is alarming — though we aren’t entirely sure why it has occurred.

A recent study is pointing towards doctors being able to predict autism in children before they turn one. Having the ability to offer children and parents such an early diagnosis will hopefully better prepare them for the challenging but undoubtedly worthwhile journey ahead.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

One reason why people might find it challenging to define ASD is that it is precisely that: a spectrum. The term encompasses a group of developmental disorders each with a broad range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability (i.e., high-functioning and low-functioning).[3]

Signs and Symptoms of People With ASD

There are two main types of behaviors – restricted/repetitive and social communication/interaction – of which we include a brief list below:[3]

Restrictive/Repetitive Behaviors

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  • Certain repetitive actions or having unusual behaviors

  • Having hyper-focused interests (e.g., moving objects or their parts)

  • Consistent and intense interests in certain topics (e.g., numbers, details, or facts)

Social Communication/Interaction Behaviors

  • Becoming upset because of (minor) changes to their routines

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  • Little or inconsistent eye contact

  • Difficulties with two-way conversations

  • Facial expressions, movements, or gestures that don’t match the conversation’s context

  • Failing or taking a while to respond to someone calling their name

  • Responding in unusual ways when others show anger, distress, or affection

Some other difficulties that people with ASD may have are light or noise sensitivities, sleeping or digestive problems, and general irritability.

These challenges, however, can also come with great strengths and abilities that parents should encourage. For example, 46% of children with autism have above average intelligence.[4] They also tend to learn things (e.g., visually and auditorily) in detail and remember things for a very long time, as well as excel in math, science, music, or art.[3]

Benefits of an Early Diagnosis

ASD affects people in many ways, some with more severe disabilities than others. Groups such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges that ADS is a significant public health issue.

It’s encouraging to see that they’re investing time and money into research, services, and community building in ways that promote inclusion. The availability of these support systems has the potential to significantly improve peoples’ quality of life.[5]

The sooner families can receive a diagnosis, the sooner and better they can help cater to their child’s individual needs. Diagnosis in young children usually requires a two-stage process at the eighteen and twenty-four-month visits. But children who have siblings or other family members with autism, recognizable ASD behaviors, or were born prematurely and at a low birth weight are at a higher risk of developing autism.

Many young kids with autism can’t speak for themselves and may act in ways that make it challenging to know off-hand whether they’re exhibiting ASD behaviors. Because of this, parents’ roles are incredibly important when it comes to relaying accurate information their doctor.

Tips for Parents

Should your child be diagnosed with some form of ASD, there are some helpful action steps you can take.[3] These tips can help grow your awareness and likely improve the quality of your child’s life:

  • Keep a notebook handy with all your detailed observations and meetings (i.e., health care providers, specialists). When it comes time to make decisions that will impact your child’s daily life (e.g., choose which school to attend) this book will help make those potentially hard decisions.

  • Contact local health departments, schools, and autism advocacy groups to learn about their specialized programs.

  • Find an ASD expert who can help develop a child-specific, personalized intervention plan in addition to other community resources.

  • Join an ASD support group because having a child with ADS is a different kind of challenge, but you aren’t alone. Sharing stories and information can help both children with ASD and parents learn more about the disorder and how to cope with the stress it may cause.

Of course, these methods will look, feel, or be different from family to family. But they are a good place to start together.

New Study: An Earlier ASD Diagnosis

In a recent study published in Nature, researchers are saying that it may be possible to detect the potential for autism development in children before the age of one!

“The field has struggled to predict autism earlier and earlier,” said study researcher Dr. Joseph Priven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD). “We’ve kind of reached a wall around two years of age.”[6]

However, this study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of around 150 babies’ brains at three different times: six months old, one-year-old, and two years old. 106 of them are at a high-risk for developing autism.[7]

Researchers noticed that babies in their first year who eventually developed autism experienced significantly rapid brain growth (i.e., increased surface area). They linked this brain “overgrowth” to the emergence of social symptoms found in children with autism.[7]

Researchers then compiled all information related to the brain’s surface area “overgrowth” and plugged it into a computer to create an algorithm. They intended for this algorithm to be able to predict which babies would eventually develop autism and the results were fascinating. The algorithm correctly identified eighty percent of high-risk babies who, by the age of two, had been diagnosed with autism.[7]

While some babies are at a higher risk of developing autism, diagnoses don’t always come by the age of two. In fact, most children aren’t diagnosed until they reach the age of four and others until they’re teens or adults. But what these MRIs suggest is that babies’ brains go through a “developmental sequence…[it] raises the possibility that we could sort of disrupt that sequence early on.”[6]

Further Reading

There’s a stigma that people with autism are somehow less than those without it. So it’s awesome when people like this 11-year-old boy break stereotypes and grace us with their pure artistic gift.

And apparently, it isn’t only siblings who can put newborns at a higher risk of developing autism. Having children at an older age may contribute to this risk as well.

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