Two recently published studies show that symptoms associated with autism can be identified as early as the first year of life, and that early detection allows for therapeutic intervention beginning in a child’s second year.
Both studies were published in the International Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatal Care and led by Dr. Hanna A. Alonim from the Mifne Center for Early Intervention in the Treatment of Autism and the Weisfeld School of Social Work Continuing Education Unit at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
The first study, carried out at the Mifne Center over the course of a decade, asked infant development experts to look for signs of autistic behavior in video recordings of 110 infants, all of whom were later diagnosed with autism between the ages of two-and-a-half and three.
They found that in 89 percent of the infants, symptoms could be observed from the age of four to six months. These signs include lack of eye contact, lack of response to parents’ voice or presence, excessive passivity or, alternatively, excessive activity, delay in motor development, refusal to eat, aversion to touch, and accelerated growth of head circumference.
Following this study, a screening tool called ESPASSI was developed by the Mifne Center to detect infants at risk for autism and used as a pilot at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
The second study, also conducted for a decade, compared the impact of therapeutic interventions at the Mifne Center that began at two different stages in life: 45 infants treated in their second year vs. 39 toddlers treated in their third year.
The interventions addressed the physical, sensory, motor, emotional, and cognitive aspects of development. While both groups showed progress in all development components, the younger group showed significantly better statistical improvement compared to the older group.
“Decades of neural, cognitive and behavioral research affirm that the human brain undergoes its most substantial and maximal development in the early postnatal years,” said Alonim.
“These two studies confirm that there is a window of opportunity and it makes complete sense that early detection and intervention will affect neuroanatomical development components at a stage which is most influential for the rapidly developing brain, even to the extent that the full-blown manifestation of autism can be prevented from escalation.”
In November, a paper published in the journal Autism by Prof. Ilan Dinstein, head of the Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research, revealed that children diagnosed before 2.5 years of age were three times more likely to exhibit considerable improvements in the core social symptoms of autism in comparison to children diagnosed at later ages.
“We believe this larger improvement is due to the larger brain plasticity and behavioral flexibility that is a fundamental characteristic of early childhood,” said Dinstein.
“These results highlight the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder even in community settings with heterogeneous services. In addition, these results motivate further prioritization of universal screening for autism spectrum disorder before 2.5 years of age.”