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.

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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.