How intriguing is this?

A new study of babies in a neo-natal intensive care unit at the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland has proffered an interesting hypothesis: that perhaps autistic children can be diagnosed as infants.

The racing-heart hope behind this theory is that these children would be able to get treatment and intervention at the earliest conceivable time, much sooner than the current depressing average of 3.1 to 5.7 years. And no matter what your theory is on autism etiology, early treatment and early intervention are keys to the child's future success and wellbeing.

While this study wasn't created to test children for autism, doctors began to see a correlation between certain conditions and a later autism diagnosis. The original study was to research infant development.

Max Wiznitzer, M.D.. is a pediatric autism specialist who sees hope in this potentially life-changing news. "This was not meant to be an autism study, but they went back and said: 'We have some features here that can differentiate the kids with autism compared with kids who don't.'" Dr. Wiznitzer practices neurodevelopment disabilities, pediatrics and pediatric neurology at Rainbow and is an associate professor of pediatric neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He is a liaison to the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children with Disabilities.

Children who were part of this study who were later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder were found to have some developmental anomalies as infants, such as muscle tone discrepancies and unusual reactive behavior to sound and visual stimuli.

Here's where it gets interesting, because the differences and concerns the doctors found were so subtle, they would have gotten past a parent or casual observance by a medical professional had these children not been under such stringent observation in intensive care. These children were being watched closely, so it was easy to follow their development with more specificity than healthy newborns. But also keep in mind that these were seriously ill infants, so the study doesn't cover healthier infants.

While this study seems somewhat limited, it is a hopeful start. If doctors can find these early markers in infants, it would improve autism diagnoses by leaps and bounds.

And with children with autism, the mantra remains: Early intervention, early treatment.

Let's hope this study that is literally in its infancy, has enormous positive implications in the future.

For more information on Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorders and other childhood developmental disorders: Alphabet Kids: A Guide to Developmental, Neurobiological and Psychological Disorders For Parents and Professionals.

About the Author

Robbie Woliver

Robbie Woliver is a journalist and editor. He is the author of the book Alphabet Kids.

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