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New ways of detecting autism at earlier age

January 17, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The average age of diagnosis for a child with autism is about 5 1/2, and most experts feel that's way too late.

There are two new ways doctors are trying to detect autism earlier, so more can be done while children are still very young.

Dalton Foreaker looks like any other 3-year-old, but when he was an infant, his mom noticed the signs.

"I remember him not responding to his name when I would call him," said Casey Foreaker.

Dalton was diagnosed with autism at just 16 months. Siblings have a greater risk, so Casey Foreaker enrolled Dalton's little brother, Jayden, in a research study to diagnose autism earlier.

Researchers monitored Jayden's response to recorded images.

"There's some indication that in older children and adults with autism, they don't pay the same degree of attention to people as they do to the objects and things in the background," said Mark Strauss, Ph.D., a psychologist.

Scientists also look to see which side of an adult's face babies focus on. Human brains are wired to look to the right. Studies have shown adults with autism don't favor a side.

Researcher Jill Gilkerson is using children's voices to help identify kids who may be at risk for autism. Parents place a recording device inside the front pocket of the child's clothing.

"It records everything the child says and everything that's spoken around them," said Gilkerson.

When the recorder is sent back to the lab, this super machine uses speech recognition technology to look for patterns - such as abnormal pitch quality and rhythm - that may indicate the child has autism. In a study of 190 children, the audio test was 89 percent accurate.

"If you can identify a child before 3 years of age and start intervention, it can make a huge difference in outcome," said Gilkerson.

Like Dalton, getting better all the time. Gilkerson said the audio screening analyzes different sounds the child makes - even if the child doesn't speak, it can detect the audio in grunts and other noises. The cost for the test is $250.