When I was pregnant with my second child, I tapped on my network within the autism community to find a study where he or she could be monitored for autism. I had heard of studies where siblings of kids with autism, who are at higher risk of having the disorder themselves, are monitored closely for early signs. Getting my child into one of these studies would ease my mind, knowing that we would catch any developmental delays as early as possible. We never found a study like this, and I still wish we could have been part of one, just for the peace of mind.
But now, one of those studies might result in tools to give some parents just that. Warren R. Jones and Ami Klin, both of the Marcus Autism Center and Emory University, published a study showing that autism can be detected in infants as young as two months. Using eye-tracking technology, researchers found that children who were diagnosed with autism at age three looked less at people’s eyes when they were babies than children who did not develop autism. For more details on this study, read the NY Times article. The study used siblings of children diagnosed with autism since they are at higher risk to also have the disorder, as well as children without autism in their family as a control group.
Those of us who are desperate to know and to parent through those early years with less anxious vigilance, might be able to relax. Well, if this study results in a screening tool for clinical use. But this promise of early detection sparks many questions for parents. Does this study’s protocol even lend itself to developing a usable screening tool? If so, will it only be siblings of a child with autism who get screened? Will this screening be available everywhere? And what about that first child?
When we went through the back and forth of wondering if there were developmental issues with my eldest, our former pediatrician saw no cause for worry. There was no family history (which comes with its own issues due to historical lack of diagnosis and family ignorance of developmental issues like autism). And my son intermittently showed lovely affect. He didn’t look like “Rain Man,” and therefore did not fit our doctor’s idea of “at risk.”
So knowing how doctors mete out diagnostic tools, would my first born have “qualified” to receive this theoretical infant screening? I doubt it. And if I hadn’t been worried and plugged in to early childhood resources, would I even have known such a screening was available?
I’m not down playing the significance of this research. It’s incredibly important. And I think that it inspires these questions because it is so important. Regardless of the practical applications of this research, it transforms how we approach the disorder and answers many controversial and lingering questions about it. This study tells us that autism is present very early. It’s just hard to see using our current developmental guidelines. And it points us to a place where we can capitalize on early intervention’s benefits. Since evidence of autism is not present at birth, but developed in the early months of life, researchers speculate that there is a window of opportunity where intervention may well slow down the progression of symptoms in autism.
Coupled with the research on language development by Patricia Kuhl, I see amazing gains to be made for families living with autism. Targeted language development work in the early months of life, up to eight months, has significant impact on a child’s development – academic and social. The problem is most children with autism are diagnosed long after eight months of age. With this study and the screening tools that could be developed from it, we see a clear path toward mitigating some of the core deficits of autism.
Diagnosed at two months of age, children can be targeted for language development therapy when their brains are most receptive to it. So now begins the hard work of developing those clinical screening tools, making them accessible and designing the therapeutic tools, based on developmental interventions, that will set these children up for successful futures.