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A USC autism study could lead to detection far earlier than now

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Identifying autism has long had to wait until around the time a child would play with toys like this. But waiting for toddler years makes it much harder to intervene and mitigate the more troublesome effects of autism on a child's anxiety, attention, and behavior.

There are no biomarkers for autism like there are for, say, a kidney disorder, where something in a blood test can tell a doctor, “This child is likely to develop a condition, and here’s how we can get in the way of that happening.”

Identifying autism in children relies instead on behavioral markers – social communication, language use, attention.

But waiting for those behavioral markers to become obvious – that is to say, waiting for behaviors to move past something that could be considered normal for a particular developmental stage – takes a lot of time; often two or three years at minimum.

That’s actually not great for anyone hoping to identify autism earlier and intervene to head off its more problematic effects. Children with autism, for example, are much more prone to anxiety and can be more likely to develop behavior patterns that are not always interpreted well by others.

Early intervention can help, says University of South Carolina psychology professor Jessica Bradshaw; can head off further development of autism before the condition takes deep roots.

The problem has always been that by the time signs of autism make themselves known to conventional detection methods, intervention is tough to accomplish.

But Dr. Bradshaw (and nearly a dozen colleagues from various universities) might just be zeroing in on identifying predictors for autism far earlier than has been possible so far. Bradshaw et al.’s research, published in the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology in October, outlines a study in children starting as young as a week old.

At increasing time intervals, Bradshaw studied social interactions in infants to see if there are differences in how they react to social situations – how and how much they engage with parents, for example.

That’s always been a snag, Bradshaw says, because infants don’t have much in the way of social communication skills. Moreover, the way a 6-month-old plays involves a lot of repetitive behavior, which itself is a telling marker of autism in older children. So it’s hard to know whether the baby repeatedly hitting the floor with a toy hammer is autism or just a baby doing what babies do when they find a toy hammer.

But it turns out, a baby’s heart rate might be a key predictor of autism as much as a year earlier than researchers and pediatricians can now comfortably identify. Bradshaw calls the finding “heart-defined attention,” which she says is a much more “precise measure of attention and processing than just looking/not looking.”

She explains it: “As you look at something and you really focus on it, your heart rate goes down, as you sustain attention. [When you look away], your heart rate goes up again, and then you look away and you disengage.”

Just knowing that in a measurable way, Bradshaw says, gives hope that tests in children as young as three months old could be enough to warrant evaluation and intervention.

Bradshaw and her team are looking to continue their studies (and are searching for more families to take part in their studies) at the Institute for Mind and Brain in Columbia.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.