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U Researchers Help In Study Showing Way To Predict Autism In Infants

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Researchers at the University of Minnesota who have been studying the development of autism say they've reached a breakthrough.

The study found there are ways to better predict that a child might have autism even before their first birthday. Researches said diagnosis of the disorder typically happens around 24 months, but the study could lead to children getting treatment for autism at an earlier stage in their lives.

At Fraser in Minneapolis, children as young as 12 months old who show potential symptoms of autism can start getting treatment to improve their social skills.

However at such a young age, the disorder isn't diagnosed. But a study by Dr. Jed Elison, a professor at University of Minnesota, and several other researchers aims to change that.

"We've been working on this project for 10 years," he said.

The group took brain scans of infants six to 12 months old who had a higher risk of developing autism, because they had an older sibling already with the disorder.

The study found some of them were showing a specific trend of rapid growth in different parts of their brain.

"Eighty percent of those showing [the growth] features at six and 12 months will go on the develop autism," said Dr. Elison.

He said besides using brain measurements, about 300 factors including the child's sex are entered into an algorithm that leads to the determination as to whether or not they're more likely to develop autism. He said combining their biological findings with the computer science aspect of the algorithm was a game changer.

Dr. Barbara Luskin, a psychologist with the Autism Society of Minnesota, said the findings were scientifically interesting.

"If you know earlier that this is a child who learns differently you can adapt how you teach that child. So they're less likely to learn bad habits. They have more chance of learning more information," she said.

One concern she had about the findings is that some families might not have the health insurance necessary to cover a brain scan. But Dr. Elison said anything that like that would be years down the road.

His focus now is strengthening the accuracy of his research by getting more grant funding.

"We're hoping that we will get another five years of this study," he said. "This is the first study to show that using brain imaging data that we can really predict with a high level of accuracy whether a child will receive a diagnosis at 24 months."

Hundreds of children were used for this study. All of them had older siblings who already have autism.

Dr. Elison said Minnesota families can enroll to be a part of the continued research. To learn more about how, click here.

Click here for resources on autism from the Minnesota Department of Health.

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