New tool for early detection of autism

A new assessment tool designed to identify developmental and behavioural issues associated Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in children under 12 months of age is the focus of a new study at Flinders University.

At present, autism is rarely diagnosed before a child is 18 months of age. The new process, which is being researched by Psychology PhD candidate Danielle Robson, has the potential to benefit autistic children and their families in relation to early delivery of assistance.

“If we are able to detect signs of autism within the first year of life, parents will be able to immediately implement an early intervention plan, which has already been shown to significantly improve the prognosis of children with autism,” Ms Robson said.

According to Ms Robson the infant assessment tool would incorporate a questionnaire for parents, along with a structured play session with the infant, during which they are scored on their responses to a number of specific tasks.

“During each session I assess at a range of behaviours, including those that previous retrospective research has suggested are impaired in infants who later develop autism, such as eye contact, social and joint attention, sensory motor behaviours and temperament. I also assess overall development, parental concern and closely monitor the infants’ behaviour,” Ms Robson said.

A group of 40 children, including 25 ‘at risk’ infants who have older siblings with the disorder, are currently taking part in the study, which includes an evaluation from as young as two weeks of age and an assessment once every two months until the child is 18 months old. Follow up reviews will be performed at 24 and 36 months to assess the diagnostic status.

“So far I have identified at least six babies who are displaying behaviours or patterns of development that are of concern and may be indicative of autism. All of these infants are under 12 months of age, which is far younger than the current detection age of between 18 months to 3 years,” Ms Robson said.

“This is very promising and suggests that autism may be able to be detected during infancy – much earlier than is currently occurring – but I won’t be able to draw any conclusions until the final evaluations have been completed and analysed,” she said.

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