Attacking Autism: Earlier Diagnosis
Reported February 03, 2009
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. A new case is diagnosed every 20 minutes in the United States, but getting to a diagnosis can be a frustrating battle. New breakthroughs may be the key to early intervention.
Tammy Kieffer cherishes playtime with her son Joseph. A year and a half ago, she watched her only child shut the world out.
“He was about almost two, and he stopped talking,” Kieffer told Ivanhoe. “He pretty much changed.”
At 3 years old, Joseph still is not diagnosed.
“The youngest I’ve ever diagnosed it is at about 18 months, and that is only for a few children,” David Childers, M.D., a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and Chief of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville, Fla., told Ivanhoe.
Studies show early intervention means better outcomes. Ami Klin, Ph.D., Director of the Autism Program at the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., looks for clues to speed up the process.
“Our hope is that we continue to lower the age of diagnosis to the point in time in which we can intervene and capitalize on brain plasticity that we see in children in the first two years of life,” Dr. Klin told Ivanhoe.
It’s that high brain plasticity that makes the brain capable of changing. Dr. Klin is using eye tracking technology to study the way children engage with the world around them. A child watches a video while technicians collect data from a hidden camera.
“Two-year-olds were much more likely to look at other people’s eyes,” Dr. Klin said. “Two year olds with autism were more likely to focus on those individual’s mouths.”
Harvey Kliman, M.D., Ph.D., a research scientist at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., is taking diagnosis a step further. His goal is to recognize red flags for autism at birth by studying placentas.
“They were basically what I call FLPs, funny looking placentas,” Dr. Kliman told Ivanhoe.
Microscopic folds in the placenta indicate that there is an abnormality.
“It turns out the brains of children with autism also have these abnormal folds,” Dr. Kliman said.
Dr. Kliman says the placenta is to a developing baby what the root system is to a tree. With bad roots, the tree won’t thrive. With an abnormal placenta, you can expect problems.
“The cases that have the most severe genetic problems have the worst-looking placentas,” he said.
It took Lesley Shlosser more than a year to get her son Devin diagnosed.
“I had three professionals run a battery of tests with him, and at the time, he did not qualify for any services, and they left,” Shlosser told Ivanhoe.
Because of the difficulty with her son, she donated her daughter Hannah’s placenta to Dr. Kliman for research.
“There’s about a 10 percent risk of having another child with autism once you once you have one child with autism,” Dr. Kliman said.
Through his research, Dr. Kliman hopes to eventually catch problems even before birth.
“We might be able to specially screen families with these problems, and we could use assistive reproductive technology to potentially identify embryos that have or do not have this problem,” he said.
Hoping autism is preventable keeps moms like Shlosser and Kieffer pushing for progress.
“I want him to have as normal of a life as possible,” Kieffer said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for autism screening suggest all children be screened during their 18- and 24-month well-checks, regardless of whether or not they present autism-like symptoms.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE VISIT:
Autism Action Plan
Autism Society of America