Getting an early autism diagnosis is a crucial part of helping kids with autism receive the help and support they need. My son was diagnosed around age 3—as were many other kids I know—but I often wonder if we could have figured out key clues about his different neurology sooner. And if we had—rather than hearing at every checkup “he’s just a late talker”—would we have been able to mitigate some of his impairments and shift his developmental track a bit? Or, easier said, what would he be like today if we’d known a bit more about his brain when it was in its most formative years?
Researchers across the country have been asking just these sorts of questions, and they’ve come up with a way that might allow them to predict autism before age 1. This sounds wild, I know, but a study published recently in Nature discusses how they are testing high-risk children (here, kids whose older siblings have autism) using magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). They tested kids at 6 months, 1 year, and at age 2. What they found is compelling: The MRIs showed that babies who were eventually diagnosed with autism experienced much more rapid growth of their brain’s surface area in their first year than babies who did not go on to receive an autism diagnosis.
Also, between the ages of 1 and 2, the rate of brain volume growth the children with autism experienced was also highly accelerated. That brain volume “overgrowth” was linked to the appearance of social symptoms related to autism in the children’s second year, which can include things like not engaging in pretend play and delayed speech and language.
So, what happens if a baby was found to show these early signs of autism? Researchers think that they could intervene in the developmental sequence—something that would not necessarily “get rid” of autism (after all, it’s a neurological difference, not a disease), but it could help with communication development, social functioning, and many other places where these kids struggle every day.
I wish I had known about these tests when my son was a baby, and I certainly hope they can improve life for kids with autism and their families for years to come.