Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) begin to show signs of the disorder between 12 and 18 months of age. According to the National Institute of Health, these symptoms include problems with eye contact, no response to his or her name, problems following a moving object, and nonverbal communication issues such as not pointing at an object when asked about it.

Scientists have discovered a way that could potentially identify ASD in children earlier in their lives, according to a new study from researchers at Washington University, the University of North Carolina, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Washington.

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You may have heard of a phenomenon called initiation of joint attention: It occurs when a baby sees an object in his or her environment, and then gets someone else to focus on it by pointing or shifting gaze. This behavior is impaired in children with autism (and the lack of it has been one of the ways to diagnose a young child).

A press release from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reported that researchers used functional MRI scans to identify brain networks involved in initiation of joint attention. They evaluated 116 young children at 12 months of age and 98 children who were 24 months.

“By the time most children are diagnosed with autism, they are 4 ½, but in studying the brains of younger children, we have found neural activity that may allow for earlier diagnosis, and that, in turn, may allow us to begin treatment sooner,” said John R. Pruett Jr., MD, PhD, co-senior study author, according to the release.

“We’re excited to link aspects of joint attention behavior to the functional architecture of the brain. This study represents the first time that has been done in children at an age when joint attention abilities are actually developing,” Pruett added.

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Moving forward, the study’s researchers hope these findings will help create a better scientific understanding of the way connections between brain networks might influence children’s language abilities and social skills, which are both impaired in ASD children. Early intervention is considered critical in helping children overcome ASD symptoms.

Source: Eggebrecht AT, Elison JT, Feczko E, Todorov A, Wolff JJ, Kandala S, et al. Joint Attention and Brain Functional Connectivity in Infants and Toddlers

See Also:

Autism: 3 Surprising Ways To Help Autistic Kids Communicate

Autism Spectrum Disorder Research 2017: Immersive Virtual Reality Can Help ASD Children Overcome Fears, Phobias