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Predicting Autism Outcomes Possible, Study Finds

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Researchers say they’ve identified brain response patterns in young kids with autism that predicted the children’s future cognitive capabilities.

By measuring brain responses to various words, a new study finds that patterns evident at age 2 indicate what type of linguistic, cognitive and adaptive skills a child with autism is likely to have when they reach ages 4 and 6.

The finding, reported Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, proved reliable regardless of the treatment that the children received, researchers said.

For the study, researchers looked at 24 kids with autism and 20 without when they were ages 2, 4 and 6. At the outset, each child was monitored with sensors to detect brain responses while they listened to a mix of familiar and unfamiliar words. The kids in the study were also assessed for language skills, cognitive abilities and social and emotional development at each age interval.

Researchers found that children with less severe autism symptoms processed words similarly to typically developing kids, while those with more severe symptoms had very different brain responses altogether.

All of the kids with autism in the study received intensive therapy and showed improved behavior, but the closer their responses in the initial tests mirrored their typically developing peers, the greater improvement the children saw over time, the study found.

“We’ve shown that the brain’s indicator of word learning in 2-year-olds already diagnosed with autism predicts their eventual skills on a broad set of cognitive and linguistic abilities and adaptive behaviors,” said the study’s lead author, Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “This is true four years after the initial test, and regardless of the type of autism treatment the children received.”

While scientists are still a long way from identifying brain markers to predict an autism diagnosis, Kuhl said that she hopes the new findings will help establish brain measures to identify and provide intervention for kids within the first year of life who are at risk for the developmental disorder.

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Comments (6 Responses)

  1. Miriam says:

    This is awful…doesn’t work like this just give people more license to stop working with kids whose autism is more involved? It sounds like evidence for those parents who think SPED money is wasted on kids who will never make anything of themselves. What next? Just institutionalize them from age two on???

  2. nikki12 says:

    @miriam: Why the attacks? There is nothing in this abstract that says that a particular group on the spectrum won’t learn. It just means that their development will be different, slower, from more mildly impaired children with ASD. IMO, this study gives strong support for intensive interventions for all children on the spectrum from a very early age. All of the children received the same types of therapies and all made progress, right?

  3. Jack Daly says:

    “Researchers say they’ve identified brain response patterns in young kids with autism that predicted the children’s future cognitive capabilities.”…This sounds very authoritative …that is, until you read further and see that their pronouncements are based on a total of 24 autistic children. Hopefully, this research and its findings are used solely to justify further research…research that utilizes a more sizable sampling of children…research that will hopefully be used to enhance future possibilities for autistic individuals and not mis-used to justify limiting the use of limited resources to those who more closely mirror their typically developing peers.

  4. 2onthespectrum says:

    Nikki12, I’m afraid Miriam is more likely to be right. Why waste money (and lots of it) on a child with autism who will not have a good outcome? Don’t get me wrong, one of my sons would likely fit this category, and we have spent lots of money on intensive therapy and are very pleased with the results. But I also know how people think, especially those that don’t understand the disability.

  5. Christopher Schmidt says:

    I am concerned that such research might lead insurance providers to determine which children they are willing to spend more resources on and which to disqualify from receiving certain treatments. I also agree that this should lead to further study. In such a small sample it seems ill-informed to generalize the findings to the larger population. I am also curious as to what treatments/interventions where used. There are a wide range and many combinations of interventions and it seems rash to conclude that these predictors hold true “regardless of the type of autism treatment the children received.” It would have been helpful to have have the treatments listed.

  6. Katie says:

    One should always PRESUME COMPETENCE.
    Autistic people develop atypically. Sometimes in surprising ways.

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