FSU autism study may lead to early detection, intervention

There is a critical need to define the social communication characteristics of very young children with autism in order to develop early detection and intervention programs

A $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders will help Florida State University Professor Amy Wetherby do just that. Wetherby, the L.L. Schendel Professor of Communication Disorders, will study the social communication skills of 12- to 24-month-old children with autism
spectrum disorders (ASD).

“The more precise information we have on the observable clinical features, the more clues for geneticists to uncover the genetic basis of autism spectrum disorders,” Wetherby said. “This will also improve early identification, since we do not yet have a genetic or biological marker for ASD and allow intervention to begin earlier.”

Wetherby, psychology Professor Chris Schatschneider and communication disorders faculty member Lindee Morgan will collect videotape samples of three groups of 12- to 24-month-old children – one group of children with ASD, one with developmental delays in which autism is ruled out and one with typical development. Half of the children will enter the study between 12 and 17 months old and half will begin between 18 and 23 months old.

This is the largest and youngest sample of children with autism spectrum disorders identified from a general population, Wetherby said. The average age of ASD diagnosis is about 3, but these children were diagnosed before their second birthdays.

Symptoms of ASD identified by Wetherby in 2004 include a lack of typical behaviors for this age group, such as looking at faces, smiling and sharing emotion, communicating with gestures and playing with objects. They may also have unusual behaviors that typical children do not display, such as repetitive movements with the body or objects. This study will allow researchers to measure these and other behaviors more precisely. “We hope to have very precise measures of social communication and growth patterns over the second year of life to document core deficits in children with ASD at this young age,”
Wetherby said. “This will have important implications for earlier identification as well as informing neurological and genetic research.”

In addition, the researchers will compare quantitative measures of social communication of 1-year-olds with ASD to those of children with developmental delays and those with typical development; study patterns of change in social communication over the second year of life in the subset of children who entered the study between 12 and 17 months of age; and examine whether social communications in the second year can predict language, adaptive behavior and autism symptoms at 3 years old.

The study will show which aspects of behavior are most likely to change in response to intervention and will help researchers describe outcomes in order to more accurately measure response to treatment.