Studies may help predict children at high risk for autism

According to previous studies at the University of Miami, children that have a sibling diagnosed with autism have a 19% chance of developing asd due to genetics and environmental factors.  Psychologists are coming up with ways to predict the occurrence early on with hopes that early intervention will lead to better outcomes in the future.

This is one of the first studies that measuring non-verbal communication in children as young as eight months may predict autism symptoms that become evident by three years of age.  By being able to identify children who are having difficulty early on can increase the effects of intervention.

“For children at risk of developing an ASD, specific communication-oriented interventions during the first years of life can lessen the severity of autism’s impact,” says Daniel Messinger, professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at UM and principal investigator of the study. Before children learn to talk, they communicate non-verbally by using eye contact and gestures. These abilities are called referential communication and are in development by eight months of age. However, “impairments in non-verbal referential communication are characteristic of older children with ASD,” says Caroline Grantz a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at UM and co-author of the paper.
A team of researchers, in another study, tested two groups of children. The first group was at high-risk for ASD and the second group was at low-risk. The evaluations took place during 15 to 20 minutes sessions, at different stages of life up to 18 months.  The team measured the development of three forms of non-verbal communication:
1. Initiating Joint Attention (IJA) – the way an infant shows interest in an object or event to a partner. For example, making eye contact and pointing to show a toy.
2. Initiating Behavioral Requests (IBR)-the manner in which an infant requests help from a partner, by making eye contact to request a toy, reaching toward, pointing to, or giving the examiner a desired toy.
3. Responding to Joint Attention (RJA)-the way infants respond and follow the behavior of a partner. For example, when the examiner points to something and the child follows the experimenter’s gaze to look at that an object. The results show that lower levels of IJA and IBR growth between eight and 18 months predicted the severity of ASD symptoms for children that had a sibling with Autism.
“Overall, infants with the lowest rates of IJA at eight months showed lower social engagement with an examiner at 30 months of age,” says Lisa Ibañez, research scientist at the University of Washington Autism Center and first author of the paper. Ibañez conducted the study as part of her dissertation research in the Department of Psychology at UM.The research team is following up the study with collaborator Wendy Stone, Professor of Psychology and Director of the University of Washington Autism Center.
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