Autism expert Sally Ozonoff discussed her research into detecting the disorder in very young children in a talk at Saint Mary's College on Oct. 30, a day after the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed the importance of early diagnosis.

"Diagnosing autism before the age of 2 has become the new holy grail of this kind of research," said Ozonoff, vice chair for research at UC Davis's Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute. Her appearance was part of the Brousseau Lecture Series, sponsored by the Saint Mary's College School of Science and the Psychology Club.

New autism guidelines by the country's leading pediatrics organization recommend that all children be screened for the developmental disorder twice by age 2.

Autism, which affects one in every 150 people and is four times more common in men than women, diminishes a person's communication and relationship skills. There is no cure, but experts like Ozonoff say early detection and behavioral therapy can lessen its impact.

"Early intervention leads to better outcomes," said Ozonoff, whose research has appeared in numerous psychology journals and on the "60 Minutes" news program. "When the brain is in its most plastic, rapidly growing stage-that's the best time to treat someone with symptoms of autism."

Currently, the average diagnosis of autism occurs when a child is 3 years old. However, Ozonoff said parents of children later diagnosed as autistic often reported concerns about potential symptoms-including less frequent eye contact, less smiling at a parent and more frequent episodes of repetitive behavior-before their child turned 2.

"We're able to make a pretty stable and effective diagnosis by the age of 2," Ozonoff said. "We're now trying to determine how early we can reliably diagnose autism and what the most reliable markers are."

In conjunction with other Davis and UCLA researchers, Ozonoff tested more than 340 children for autism symptoms at regular intervals between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. They examined both children who have an autistic older sibling and children who don't. Diagnostic tests included children's responses to a parent's facial expressions and to different objects and images.

One finding was that the children with an autistic older sibling were much more likely to develop the disorder as well as other speech or behavioral problems.

"Autism is the one of the most heritable of all disorders," Ozonoff noted.

The study also demonstrated that children between the ages of 1 and 2 who were ultimately diagnosed with autism tended to be less responsive to social stimuli and were more likely to repeatedly spin, roll and stare at objects when playing with them.

Ozonoff said one of the implications of her research is that parents and pediatricians should take any potential autism symptoms seriously, even in children younger than 2 years old.

"Don't wait for a definitive diagnosis," she said. "Children should be offered services as soon as there's a concern."

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications

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