Early diagnosis of autism

By Ann Griswold • Published: March 2nd, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Picture a baby… a cooing, smiling bundle of joy, able to disarm the grumpiest soul with a wide-eyed look. Most babies fit this description to a T. But infants with autism remain locked in their own world, finding it hard to process language, express emotion and experience the unbridled joys of childhood. Now, scientists say they’ve detected a key difference in the brains of autistic children that may allow for diagnosis as early as infancy.

Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia made this discovery by comparing twenty-five autistic children with kids who were developing normally. The children wore helmets with sensors that detected changes in the magnetic field of the brain as the children listened to a variety of sounds and sentences.

The scientists found that people with autism have trouble with language because they process sounds one-hundredth of a second more slowly than do other people. Wondering what one-hundredth of a second feels like? Listen to the word “elephant.” People with autism were still processing “el” when everyone else had moved on to the next word. You can imagine how a minor delay in one word could snowball into a serious problem through the course of a conversation.

Many children aren’t diagnosed with autism until they enter preschool and a teacher notices obvious behavioral, social or language problems. But scientists say they could use the helmets to analyze the brains of infants and diagnose the condition much earlier. Autism isn’t curable, but early intervention can make a huge difference in the child’s ability to function normally.