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New Study Focuses On Autism, Development Of Language Skills

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Niko Stevens loves playing with his big brother, Shawn.

Niko is 3. He is autistic and doesn't speak.

"He can't say well, 'Mommy, I just want a hug. Mommy, I just want a kiss,'" says his mother, Violet Stevens.

A new study finds the way an autistic child's brain responds to words at an early age can help predict the child's future language skills and social behavior.

Researchers tested the brain patterns of 2-year-olds on the autism spectrum.

They found children who had patterns similar to a typical child progressed well by age 4 and 6. But children whose response was more scattered went on to struggle.

"It will help us to identify very early in life - this is at age 2 - which children are going to have difficulties so that we can then provide them with extra treatments," says study co-author, Dr. Geraldine Dawson, a psychiatrist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Extra treatments, such as having parents work on their babies' eye contact and responses to faces.

"Early intervention makes a big difference," says Mark Strauss, PhD, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh.

About 20 percent of children with autism do not speak.

"Trying to separate when a delay is normal versus indicative of something like autism is very difficult," says Dr. Strauss. "What this research will help us to do is figure out which babies to watch closely."

Niko's mom says even though he cannot talk, he can communicate.

"If he is thirsty, he'll get his cup, he'll bring his cup. If there's a toy he wants, he'll bring it to you," she says.

She remains optimistic the words will come.

"They can't say he's definitely going to talk, but you just have to be hopeful that he can," she says.

Researchers say the results held four years after initial tests, regardless of the types of treatment the children received.

Rather than a firm diagnostic tool, this type of testing will add to the range of tests that can help identify children at risk.

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