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Two studies may provide insight into early detection of autism

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A pair of studies published this week may provide insight into the early detection of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children.

The first, published Thursday in the journal Biological Psychiatry, examined the gazes of 6-month old infants when viewing human faces as they were still, smiling or speaking.

Typically-developing children tend to show a preference for human interaction and the voices of others. By using eye-tracking technology, the researchers found that not only did the infants who were later diagnosed on the autism spectrum look at faces for a shorter period of time than other infants, they also looked away when the faces began speaking.

Neuro-typical individuals attend to key facial features, such as the eyes and lips, when engaged in social interactions with others. This suggests that people who are later diagnosed with ASD, usually at two years of age, have difficulty attending to key social information and that these abnormal behaviors may be detectable from an early age.

A second study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry looked at repetitive behaviors, a hallmark of ASD. These behaviors, including restricted interests and stereotypical behaviors, may inhibit basic daily functioning and hinder social interactions with other peers. For example, a child with ASD may have a large interest in Transformers, leading to repetitive language and conversation on that one topic. However, when a peer attempts to interact with them and change the subject, the child with ASD will be unable to shift focus away from their preferred topic, impeding that social interaction.

Brain lateralization is a typical developmental process that underlies several cognitive and behavioral functions including language. Typically-developing individuals have lateralization of the left side of the brain for language regions and lateralization of the right side for attentional regions.

The research team analyzed parent reports, a behavioral task and neuroimaging of brain lateralization, the results of which were compared between a group diagnosed with ASD and a typically-developing group.

Parents of the ASD group reported a significantly higher intensity of the restricted interests and a high level of interference with daily functioning. Functional MRI scans found abnormal lateralization in the group with ASD, particularly diminished in language regions on the left side of the brain, which may indicate an overall lack of specialization in brain regions that process language and social stimuli, leading to the increase in restricted interests and other communication and social deficits.

Both of these studies indicate the potential for two distinct methods of detecting abnormalities in autism spectrum disorder at an early age, leading to earlier detection and diagnosis. This may also pave the way for earlier intervention targeting abnormal behaviors and developmental patterns.

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