New autism test could detect condition at 6 months

Autistic babies' brains show signs of the condition at a far earlier age than previously thought, according to new research

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Autism may be detected in children as young as 6 months old, a study has revealed. According to the new research, children with the condition show differences in their brain waves from a younger age than previously thought.

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Symptoms of autism usually develop by the time a child turns 2. Professor Mark Johnson from Birkbeck College, who led the study, believes that detecting the disorder earlier than this could help with treatment.

“The prevailing view is that if we’re able to intervene before the onset of full symptoms, such as a training programme, at least in some cases we can maybe alleviate full symptoms.”

Mark and his team looked for the differences in brain activity of 104 children, aged between 6 and 10 months, using sensors attached to their scalps. Fifty-four of the children were known to be at risk of autism because they had an older sibling diagnosed with the condition. The others were low-risk babies.

As part of the research, babies were shown images of people’s faces that switched between looking at or away from the baby.

The study found that when looking at the pictures, there was a large difference in the brainwaves and in patterns of eye contact in the two groups. In the at-risk group, electrical impulsesin the brain were diminished, suggesting unusual response to social interaction and eye contact. A lack of eye contact is a feature in many older children with autism. 

The development of a more reliable test is needed before it can be used but autism charities find the results of this research positive. “It is important to note it is not a 100% predictor. We had babies who flagged up warning signs who did not develop autism,” said Mark, reports the BBC.

“The hope is that this important research will lead to improved identification and access to services for future generations,” said Christine Swaby from charity Autistica.

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