The autism test for babies as young as three months old

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Babies could soon be tested for autism spectrum disorder as young as three-months-old, following promising results in a recent overseas study.

Rather than waiting until children are at least two years old or older, Boston University researchers have discovered that electroencephalograms (EEGs), which measure brain activity, could predict or rule out ASD in babies from as little as 12-weeks-old.

Presently, a reliable ASD diagnosis can be made around the age of two years old, but for many kids the average age of diagnosis is around five years old.

Director of Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston University, and co-author of the study, Dr Charles Nelson said EEGs were already used in many paediatric settings.

"EEGs are low-cost, non-invasive and relatively easy to incorporate into well-baby check-ups," Dr Nelson said.

"Their reliability in predicting whether a child will develop autism raises the possibility of intervening very early, well before clear behavioural symptoms emerge."

The study saw 99 infants considered high-risk for ASD (having an older sibling with the diagnosis) and 89 low-risk infants (without an affected sibling) have EEGs at three, six, nine, 12, 18, 24 and 36-months-old.

The babies sat on their mothers' laps while researchers slipped nets with 128 sensors over their scalps while the EEGs were conducted. Researchers blew bubbles to distract them while the tests were being undertaken.

The results were promising with a highly accurate prediction of an infant having ASD (or not) by three months of age. By nine months of age the tests showed a predictive accuracy of ASD diagnoses of nearly 100 per cent.

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Australian experts are hailing the study as a step forward for treating children with autism.

Melbourne paediatric nurse and Director of Kids on Track Paediatric Consultancy Ariella Lew said the research was a "huge step forward" that could "change the landscape of early intervention for children with autism".

"For many families, the process of diagnosis is onerous, stressful and very expensive," Ms Lew said.

"It also often takes place following months and sometimes years of managing challenging behaviour from their child and not knowing where to turn. 

"A clear direction from early on can help parents to educate themselves on what lies ahead and more importantly to begin early intervention therapies for their child which all research says can make an enormous difference."

She said any early intervention therapy was helpful for the children's development.

"Some ideas would include – slow introduction of sensory inputs to help navigate sensory issues, early socialisation groups, physio and occupational therapy to help strengthen core muscles if these are weak (which they are for some children and not for others)," she said.

"Importantly as well would be that the family can access support including psychology to help them come better understand what lies ahead and be prepared for what interventions they will need to have in place."

Senior Behaviour Specialist and Founder of Autism Swim Erika Gleeson said while there were many "incredible studies underway in autism" most, including this study, were still in their "infantile state".

"In theory, the methodology makes sense, given that ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, in comparison with other tests (such as tracking eye contact in babies), as these difficulties are not seen in all individuals with ASD," Ms Gleeson said.

"We do know that the current diagnostic tools, can at times be somewhat subjective in terms of the provision of scores, so it's inevitable that diagnoses will move in a direction similar to this over time."

She said all the research in the field supported early intervention, particularly in terms of skill development (such as speech, communication, sensory regulation and behavioural support).  And tests such as the EEG would allow intervention to commence sooner, which "minimises the chances of behaviours and skill deficits becoming overly 'ingrained'".

As a result, therapies could commence earlier and target expected developmental milestones. 

"Naturally, this would mean parents could start accessing services and support sooner, however, it would also mean that many practitioners/clinicians would need to shift their current methodologies to be more baby-specific (as most wouldn't be experienced in working with diagnoses under the age of two years old)," Ms Gleeson said.

"It also would mean a shift in funding arrangements, such as the NDIS, and some of the age stipulations currently in place for many of the related services."