One in every 68 American children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, diagnosis of this condition is stuck in the dark ages — it’s still a confusing and subjective process in which doctors deliver their verdict after observing a small child’s behavior and assessing past symptoms. Now, researchers at Yeshiva University say they are refining a new and objective method of diagnosis. Measuring with an electroencephalogram (EEG) how fast the brain responds to sights and sounds, these scientists suggest, could be the key to an accurate and precise identification of children with autism.

This new method is based on scientific knowledge of how our brains sort incoming information. Whenever we listen to others speak, we gather input about what they are telling us not only from hearing their words but also by watching their faces. Meanwhile, one region of our brains is processing the auditory information, while a separate region is processing the visual input. In order for us to make sense of what we are being told, these two distinct brain regions must communicate with each other. Through previous research, Dr. Sophie Molholm, an associate professor in pediatrics at Yeshiva's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and her colleagues discovered that the communication between these brain regions is somehow impaired, or simply less effective, among autistic children when compared to normally developing children. The researchers discovered this when they used an EEG to record the brainwaves of a group of children. Comparing the recordings of all the children, the researchers saw how the autistic children processed the sensory information (sound, vision, and touch) less rapidly than their typically developing peers.

Severity of Symptoms Linked to EEG Evidence

For the current study, Molholm's team once again returned to the EEG machine in order to record the brainwaves of 43 ASD children between the ages of 6 and 17. Seated before a computer, the children heard or saw either an auditory tone, a visual image (red circle), or the two combined. The children were instructed to press a button after hearing the tone, seeing the image, or seeing and hearing the two together; at the same time, the EEG was measuring how fast their brains processed the stimuli. The researchers designed this experiment to answer two simple questions: Which sensory input gave the ASD children trouble? Did this relate to the severity of their symptoms?

The researchers found a link between the auditory signals and autism severity. Specifically, the children with more severe autisms took longer to process the auditory signals. However, there was no link between visual processing and ASD severity — the severely affected children did not take longer to process what they saw. The combined audio-visual signals revealed a significant (though weaker than the sound-only trials) relationship to autism severity.

So, how will this new information help the families of children with autism? This research points the way to more objective tests, which would allow doctors to classify patients into precise subgroups and treat them effectively. Most importantly, an objective brainwave test for children might help doctors diagnose ASD at an earlier age. "Early diagnosis allows for earlier treatment — which we know increases the likelihood of a better outcome," Molholm said. Currently, less than 15 percent of children with the disorder are diagnosed before age 4. A new and objective test, then, for identifying children at an earlier age would lead to better treatment and in the end provide more hope of a productive life.

Source: Molholm S, Brandwein A, Foxe J, et al. Neurophysiological Indices of Atypical Auditory Processing and Multisensory Integration are Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities. 2014.