Study Reveals Symptoms of Autism are Apparent in Infancy

July 28, 2003
Findings Already Leading To Earlier Diagnosis, Interventions For Disorder That Is Fast Increasing In Incidence

Baltimore - Researchers at Kennedy Krieger Institute have found that children who have autism start showing signs of the disorder much earlier than previously known - in infancy - a finding that already is leading to earlier diagnosis and interventions that could help individuals live more normal lives.

The study is the first ever to prospectively follow infants to examine the signs and progression of autism. It is a cornerstone of understanding the disorder, which is now the third most common developmental disability in the United States. Incidence rates range from one in 1,000 to one in 500 individuals in the United States alone.

The NIH-funded study involves the enrollment of more than 300 infant siblings of children with autism and testing them at birth, 6, 14, 24 and 36 months of age. The study has found that, by 6 months, some children with autism have begun showing signs of the disorder, and by 18 months, a whole constellation of symptoms has emerged.

Currently, autism typically is not detected until age 3 or later, when most experts agree the majority of the damage to the developing brain already has been done.

The project has been expanded to develop guidelines to differentiate autism from language delay in children, 18 months and older, and to examine the brain basis of the expression of social and communicative abnormalities.

"We are researching children with autism to understand the brain abnormality, so that we can develop treatments and prevention strategies," said Dr. Rebecca Landa, principal investigator of the study and Director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger. "We also are looking for more effective methods of diagnosing autism that can be used by clinicians."

Individuals with autism frequently exhibit developmental delays in physical, social and language skills, have abnormal responses to sensations, communicate unusually and have abnormal ways of relating to people, objects and events in the environment.

The condition is four times more likely in boys than girls, and sometimes occurs in association with other disorders. Though the cause of autism is unknown and there is no known "cure," structured educational programs geared to the child's level can help them live more normal lives.

The infant study is one of three that are the focus of Kennedy Krieger's new National Autism Center, which was funded in May with a five-year, $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The Institute joins seven other centers across the country designated as national centers dedicated to Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, or STAART.

Kennedy Krieger's autism center will contribute significantly to scientific advances in autism by bringing together biomedical, behavioral and clinical scientists from the Institute and four other organizations in the Baltimore/Washington area to identify and explore fundamental biologic disorders of brain development that lead to autism spectrum disorders, understand how they impair brain function, and design effective therapies.

Kennedy Krieger Institute is dedicated to helping children and adolescents with disabilities resulting from disorders of the brain achieve their potential and participate as fully as possible in family, community and school life. For more information about Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit www.kennedykrieger.org.

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