Psychologist looking for early clues of autism
A USC psychology professor is looking for behavioral and physiological markers in infants that could allow autism to be diagnosed at much earlier ages.
If successful, Jane Roberts’ research could lead to improved developmental outcomes for children with autism by opening the door for earlier and more targeted treatment interventions.
“The average age for diagnosis of autism is currently five years, and it’s a behavioral diagnosis: a child must exhibit specific behaviors that are atypical to a a certain degree,” Roberts said. “Those atypical behaviors are difficult to detect at younger ages, but if we can lower the age of diagnosis or at least figure out which infants are at highest risk, there’s a much better opportunity for early interventions to alter the course of the disease and improve outcomes.”
Roberts is using a grant from the state Developmental Disabilities Council to look for specific markers, including heart activity and visual attention that could signal the presence of autism in the first 2 years of life. Roberts plans to collaborate with John Richards, a fellow professor in the psychology department who has conducted numerous studies on infant attention.
Using some of Richards’ techniques that involve EEG analysis, heart rhythm monitoring, and visual attention, Roberts will study two high risk groups: infants with older siblings diagnosed with autism, and infants with fragile X syndrome, a single-gene disorder that’s the No. 1 known biological cause of autism.
“As a prospective study, we won’t know until later which of the infants we study will be diagnosed with autism, but the baseline data we gather could isolate the early onset markers that correlate with the disease,” Roberts said.
With a prevalence of 1:110 (1:70 males) and a treatment cost of $35 billion per year, the early detection of autism in high-risk infants is critical. Autism is diagnosed four-times as often in boys, and approximately 20 percent of younger siblings of children already diagnosed with autism will be diagnosed with autism, too. One in 4,000 males are born with fragile X syndrome, a disorder that involves debilitating intellectual disabilities, and a diagnosis of autism is common, occurring in approximately 40 percent of fragile X cases.