Sniff Tests Could Help Diagnose Autism in Toddlers

sniff test for autism

The first step in effective autism treatment is to get it diagnosed as early as possible––preferably when the child is a toddler.

However, some people with autism can appear to have an intellectual disability, sensory processing issues, or problems with hearing and vision. To complicate matters further, these conditions can be comorbid with autism. This can make it difficult to distinguish autism from other developmental disorders.

But new research might have found an easier way to begin diagnosing autism in the toddler years through a new, simple diagnostic “sniff test.” This behavioral test is measured by sensitivity. Generally, if people sense a pleasant aroma, they are more likely to breath in more. If they come across a nasty stench however, they will adjust to “low-magnitude” sniffs to lower their response to the awful stimulus.

To measure how autistic children differ in this kind of response, researchers used a device called the olfactometer. The device delivered scents though two small tubes that fit into each nostril, while a second tube measured how much air the children breathed during each round of scent testing.

In this experiment, conducted by a team of researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, 36 children were selected: 18 diagnosed with ASD and 18 non-ASD kids, who acted as the control group.

The scents were altered between pleasant smells, such as roses or shampoo, and unpleasant smells, such as sour milk or rotten fish. The control group adjusted their response according to the scent, taking a big whiff of the roses and a smaller one for the rotten fish. This shift happened very quickly- they reacted in about a third of a second. The children with autism, however, did not adjust their response at all.

By using the differences in sniff response between the two groups, the researchers were able to identify the children with an autism diagnosis with 81% accuracy, according to an article in Medical News Today. In fact, they found that the more abnormal the sniff response among the autistic children, the more severe their social symptoms were.  

This research opens the door to a sniff test that could be useful for early autism diagnosis. The test is completely nonverbal and entails no task to follow. It could lead the way to developing a diagnostic tool that can be used very early on, such as with infants who are only a few months old. “Such an early diagnosis,” study author Noam Sobel says, “would allow for more effective intervention.”

Now the researchers hope to determine whether olfactory impairment is involved in social impairments in autistic children.

By Nina Bergold

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