4 Promising New Methods Could Change How Autism Is Diagnosed

eyeIf you aren’t the parent of a child somewhere on the spectrum, you know someone who went through the daunting experience of getting their child diagnosed.

Daunting is hardly the word for it as the process is so unclear and overwhelming, mostly because there is no single medical test to detect autism. The disorder is so varied (hence, spectrum) and complicated that parents can often be shuttling between medical professionals, from physicians to psychiatrists, for years before receiving any kind of diagnosis.

Now, as The Huffington Post reports, there are some promising new tools researchers are exploring for diagnosing autism.

Right now the American Academy of Pediatrics wants all children screened for autism at 18 and 24 months, which basically involves parents answering a questionnaire about their children. Although it’s fairly successful at identifying which kids need further evaluation, it clearly isn’t a perfect science.

But studies have shown that the earlier a child is diagnosed the better the outcome, so it’s exciting to hear that researchers are trying to figure out better ways to diagnose autism.

“The holy grail for research in the area of diagnosis is really focused on trying to find more objective means for diagnosing psychiatric disorders, including autism — finding more precise, objective, physiological-based ways of detecting risk,” says Rob Ring, chief science officer with the non-profit Autism Speaks. “In autism this is particularly true, especially when you’re dealing with young children, many of whom may not be verbal.”

Below are the 4 specific areas researchers are keying in on when it comes to detecting autism in children:

Eye Tracking

Many children on the spectrum avoid eye contact. As LiveScience notes, a study published in the journal Nature last fall found that decreased eye contact was found in infants as early as 2 to 6 months who were later diagnosed with autism. And as HuffPo notes, the same kids maintained eye contact half as much as kids without autism. “[Eye-tracking and eye gaze] seem to hold some diagnostic promise as early detectors of autism,” Ring says. “There’s still a ways to go with these technologies but there are, I think, some very promising advances worth watching.”

Blood Tests

No one knows what causes autism, but Ring says “genetics has a strong role to play in creating risk.” That’s why several are trying to develop blood-based screening tests. Still, that’s probably a long way off as developing accurate tests is complicated. “The state of the science isn’t at a point where you can take a drop of blood, and run a test on it, and use that as a replacement for behavioral diagnosis by a trained physician.”

Brain Imaging

Researchers are looking into brain imaging to not just better understand autism but also to learn how to improve diagnosis. As HuffPo notes, “In a study published in the June 2012 journal BMC Medicine, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital found it might be possible to use electroencephalograms, or “EEGs” to identify factors that distinguish children with ASDs from those without as early as age 2. Other studies have looked at the role that magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, could play.”

Online Tests

Autism awareness has skyrocketed in the past couple years with as many as 1 in 68  children being diagnosed (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), so Ring argues that widespread availability of simple questionnaires like the M-CHAT will help more parents identify children who are on the spectrum and seek help.

In my opinion, nothing can speed along a diagnosis and the resulting support to help an autistic child blossom like parental awareness can. Know the signs and don’t talk yourself out of asking a professional if you have a concern or think something isn’t quite right. It can be devastating to admit something might be different with your child, but early intervention is key, and the earlier you seek help the better off your child will be.

Image: Flickr

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