Big News in Autism Research: A language test


A spring publication in the journal Neuron reported on a reliable method to forecast autism. The study, conducted by Eric Courchesne, Director of the University of California, San Diego’s Autism Center of Excellence, took eight years and the participation of 103 babies. The method was simple.

To determine the child’s prognosis all that was needed was: a nap, a nursery rhyme and a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The test showed that even in sleep and even at an age when some babies lack words, a baby’s brain responds to the spoken work to predict if the child will develop speech, comprehension and social skills. The brain scans revealed that a typical child will respond to the spoken word with robust activity in the brain structures most associated with language, memory, reward, emotion and social judgment. There is little activity in the brain regions linked to motor control and sensory processing.

In babies who went on to have the most severe forms of autism the brain region activity was reversed. Motor control and sensory processing lit up with strong activity, and there was no activity in the language, memory and social judgment regions. Courchesne said the study sheds light on autism. It may not be a spectrum, but rather more than one disorder with different causes and likely more than one approach to effective treatment.

In the study there were some babies who had received a diagnosis of autism but had brain activation patterns like normally developing children. These children later developed strong language skills and better social skills. Courchesne noted that this explains the long-observed pattern in autism that about half the children develop language skills and social skills in response to intervention.

It may not be the attributes of the intervention but rather that the children are starting from very different places. Those with more severe autism probably need more intensive intervention to ready them for different treaments. Understanding the differences in infants with signs of autism could be the beginning of targeted, more effective treatment.


Author: Editorial Team

A select group of our board members who have something to say, but want to say it together. We also use this byline for those who wish to write anonymously.


  1. Hi,

    I have a hard time with these results. I wonder if it is one of those case where we only are able to discern what we already know exists (the strong lighting up in language and social areas of the brain for HFAs).
    I work using Soma Mukhopadhyay’s Rapid Prompting Method-and have seen my “non verbal” students respond and communicate just fine-just not by spoken language-through pointing at letters/typing-and no, it is not wishful thinking or me moving hand or letterboard(I do not touch them in any form, there is no leaning against..)
    I have zero doubt that they understand what I say and ask.
    Yes, it may look different-but I know they understand.
    There are now ample recordings to demonstrate this.

    I am afraid this study will only go on to deepen the prejudice against the “low functioning ones”- who already suffer because the methods our educators are so familiar with and which so nicely accomodate their own, the educator’s, tendency for sameness, do not seem to work for the lower functioning ones.
    Doing RPM,we have seen time and time again that “non-verbal” students can be taught just fine-but through different methods.
    I am genuinely happy for the ones that can be mainstreamed at school and even more so for the ones who can easily find their spot amongst all others in life-the fuller their life, the better.
    But declaring the lower functioning ones incapable of reacting to language(or “more challenged”) is neither news nor does it serve any constructive purpose.
    Thank you!

  2. Sorry to perseverate here(but you don’t get ASD in both of your kids for nothing)-:-).
    It may be that the individuals with more “language damage” were exerting more effort to decipher the message(motor area lit up) and just not going about it efficiently or through the typically appropriate channels(which is typical for kids with ASD) ,
    rather than, the way research results could be interpreted, that “they didn’t even register someone was talking”-which would reinforce the whole notion that those kids we find hard to reach are “in a world of their own”.
    Yesterday at the annual PACER Symposium, a very bright young man talked about concussions-their effects and how educators and caregivers can help. He stressed how little still is known in the field and that researchers are very careful to draw conclusions as each brain is so different. It was mentioned that many processes in the brain are not visible to us through imagery yet.
    It would be wonderful if some of that same modesty existed amongst researchers in the ASD field-and if they stopped-just for once-“downloading” all they know about the easy to find out about higher functioning kids onto everybody else!

Thoughts? Post 'em.

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