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Even as the number of children with autism continues to rise, diagnosis remains difficult. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children has autism, up from 1 in 100 just a few years ago.

A new study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, however, suggests that earlier diagnosis is possible by analyzing children’s brainwaves with a simple, non-invasive scan.

During the study, researchers studied the brain wave patterns in 43 children between the ages of 6 and 17 who had been diagnosed with autism, according to the Washington Post. The children were shown one of three stimuli—a red circle, an audible tone, or both—and asked to press a button while their brainwaves were being recorded with an EEG, or electro-encephalography test.

Researchers found that children with more severe diagnosed autism reacted more slowly to the auditory sensory input, so they pushed the button more slowly for the tone and the circle/tone combination. This is a potentially valuable finding because children with autism generally have sensory integration problems, which helps explain why children with autism are often sensitive to noises or seem out of touch during conversations and other interactions. In general, the researchers found that the more severe the autism, the slower their reaction time.

While more study is needed to identify specific brainwave patterns that might help doctors identify autism earlier, this is a promising step forward in early diagnosis and treatment. Many studies have shown that early intervention with autism can make a profound difference on the children’s development, social interaction, and severity of symptoms. By diagnosing children earlier, it might be possible to intervene even earlier.

Currently, the earliest children are diagnosed with autism is generally around their second birthday, although it can be significantly earlier or later, depending on the child. Some studies have found that symptoms of autism are present as early as 6 months of age, but there is no diagnostic criteria that can reliably identify children this young. Autism diagnosis is usually performed by an interdisciplinary team of therapists, psychologists, and health professionals.

“Ultimately, we’re on the road to developing measures of brain activity that will help to diagnose or recognize autism,” Sophie Molholm told the Washington Post. Molholm is an associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a study co-author. “A major goal of autism research is to develop these kinds of measures so we can diagnose this disorder as quickly as possible.”

Takeaways

  • Currently 1 in every 68 children has autism.
  • Early intervention with autism can significantly change a child’s development, social interaction, and severity of symptoms.
  • While some studies have been able to detect symptoms of autism at 6 months of age, many of these are unreliable.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  2. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Neurophysiological Indices of Atypical Auditory Processing and Multisensory Integration are Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism.
  3. Washington Post. A brain wave test could diagnose autistic kids earlier.

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