Autism has always been a difficult neurological disorder to diagnose, but in a new study of the brain scans for young children and infants, it may be possible to make an early diagnosis. The new study, which had findings published in the journal Neuron on Thursday, April 9, 2015, took eight years of research. There were also over 100 children involved in the research, which will give doctors a way to determine if a child will struggle with language, as well as have autism.
Diagnosing autism has always been a problem for doctors, as there is no such thing as a cheek swab or blood test to determine if a person has the disorder. Instead, in order to “confirm” that an individual had autism, it was based on reports from teachers and parents, assessments of behavior during play and general observations. Plus, without knowing levels of autistic behavior early on, it is difficult to implement specialized learning plans. With such a wide autism spectrum in which a person can land on, it can be difficult to determine what needs must be met.
Now scientists believe they may have found a new way to determine a child’s autism levels based on brain scans. Using images of a toddler’s brain, it is possible that these scientists can potentially determine the language abilities as they are developing. The children scanned during the study ranged in age from 12 to 29 months old. Those same children were then scanned approximately one year later, when they were between 30 to 48 months, in effort to once more assess their language skills and development.
Since there are distinct brain waves patterns that are monitored via an MRI, the published study showcased three different images that depicted these patterns of activity. In one image, researchers showcased the brain wave patterns of a toddler described as typical. A second image showed wave patterns for a toddler with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with language outcomes considered to be “good.” The final image had the wave patterns of an ASD toddler with a potentially poor language outcome.
Eric Courchesne, one of the study’s authors, said that the mystery of why children with autism develop language skills that range from relatively poor to strong, is one that is extremely important to solve. As more children are being diagnosed with autism, it becomes even more important to do research to determine the potential prognosis of a child with autistic tendencies. For some children, a diagnosis of autism is not the proverbial dark cloud over the head that it was once thought to be, especially as more research is being done in regards to language abilities in those falling on the spectrum.
Although it may now be possible to diagnose autism in children via an MRI scan, these same tests may also give researchers a chance to determine how the brain reacts to the spoken word. This very same study may lead to a clarification of what the disorder truly is, or if it is a combination of disorders that each require a different approach or treatment. At a time when the world is celebrating education initiatives to raise awareness about autism, researchers are making strides towards determining what the spectrum really is, and how it effects children early on in their development.
By Kimberley Spinney