Study by Flinders University detects signs of autism in first weeks

Verity Edwards, September 14, 2009, from: The Australian

A WORLD-FIRST study on siblings of children with autism is showing that signs associated with the behavioural disorder appear in babies in their first weeks of life.

The Flinders University research is the first of its kind to study the behaviour of infants who have an increased risk of developing autism from as young as 10 days, and to revisit the children every second month until they are 18 months old.

The ability to diagnose children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder within the first months could lead to significant improvements in a child's quality of life, because it would enable parents to seek early intervention therapies for their children and to circumvent the formation of specific behavioural patterns.

Study co-ordinator Danielle Robson told The Australian preliminary results were showing children in an at-risk group - with an older sibling with an ASD including Asperger's syndrome - were developing different behavioural patterns to children from families with no history of autism.

"Many of the at-risk infants are showing early patterns of behaviour that's consistent with autism even if they don't go on to develop autism," Ms Robson said yesterday. "Even if they didn't develop autism, their development is different to infants with no family history of autism and what it should be, suggesting there may be a broader spectrum of the disorder among family members."

The plight of parents with autistic children was highlighted last week when national rugby league star Mat Rogers and his wife Chloe Maxwell revealed that their son Max had been diagnosed with the behavioural disorder.

The family has been working with a therapist four hours a day and they have noticed the three-year-old now engages with them.

Autism affects up to 16 children per 10,000, with wider spectrum disorders affecting up to 60 children per 10,000. The assessments measured a wide range of developmental areas, including traits associated with autism such as responding to people, sensory perceptions and pictures. During her assessments, Ms Robson used toys, pictures, noises and other items to gauge the child's attention and watch how they responded.

Differences between the groups included noticeable autism-related behaviours such as their ability to pay attention, respond to their own name, early language development and cognitive abilities, temperament and sensory processing.

As well as using four internationally recognised behavioural measures to identify ASDs, Ms Robson and Flinders University psychologist Robyn Young created an early detection tool to assess traits thought to develop atypically in autistic infants from birth.

Autistic traits are not generally detected in children until they are at least three years old, and many not until school.

Ms Robson said early detection enabled parents to seek intervention therapy for the child as soon as possible, which could significantly alter the formation of behaviour patterns.

"Early intervention seems to improve their prognosis; there's anecdotal evidence that starting intervention early can lead to better outcomes," she said.

Early intervention involves behaviour-modifying therapy, such as working repetitively with children to improve their understanding of verbal instructions, play skills and teaching children how to respond to others.

Of the 39 children assessed, including 15 not at risk, Ms Robson was able to tell the parents of three children there were definite signs of an ASD before their first birthday.

"Three of those families started doing some behaviour modifications and all of those children at 18 months old didn't have autism," she said.

The aim of the study is to investigate whether autism could be detected at a younger age than with present diagnoses.