Infants at High Risk for Autism


Wendy Rubick of the Austin Community Impact Newsletter wrote an article about my Autism sibling study at the University of Texas. I’d like to share it with you:

A project at The University of Texas is taking on autism by attempting to focus on early identification and treatment in young children.

Dr. Rebecca Neal, an assistant professor in UT’s psychology department, and Bridget Gamber, a psychology doctoral student, are recruiting families from The University of Texas Autism Project, the local chapter of Autism Society of America, and autism treatment clinics to participate.

Researchers have not yet found the cause of autism—a developmental disorder marked by social and communication deficits and intense repeated interests and behaviors. However, studies show genetics and environment as contributing factors, Neal said.

“This is not a study meant to identify causes, but [to] help identify kids earlier, and get them into intervention early,” she said. “We have a large accumulation of literature to suggest early identification, earlier intervention contributes to a much better outcome.”

The study is currently underway and expected to last 18 to 21 months.

The longitudinal study will follow the growth of infants who have a sibling with autism, Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder to find early markers of autism in children. Infants will be videotaped for nine to 30 months while engaged in play with their mothers and with an examiner.

Past research has focused on older children with autism, Gamber said. The study is the first at the university to study infants.

“Right now, we’re not at the point where we’re diagnosing young enough,” Gamber said. “Finding symptoms allows us to detect which kids need intervention sooner and which types of intervention works best for them.”

Once children are found to need further assessment and evaluation, they are mainly referred to Early Childhood Intervention, a statewide program that offers free medical diagnosis and in-home services for children up to 3 years old with a developmental delay. Other community programs exist as well for children with autism, Gamber said. Once diagnosed, applied behavioral analysis, an intensive behavioral therapy, is the most effective treatment for youth.

Findings from Baby Siblings Research Consortium indicated that siblings of individuals with autism have a risk for the disorder as high as 20 percent, compared to less than 1 percent in the general population, Gamber said.

The researchers will examine differences in social, cognitive and language development between 40 infants. Results will be compared with data from a control group—40 infants whose siblings do not have an autism spectrum disorder. A second focus of the study will examine a correlation between parental factors and children with autism.

“One of the things we’re really only starting to explore is how parents engage and interact with the child, how they structure interaction, may facilitate optimum development,” Neal said.

I’ll keep you posted on any updates. For more information, please call the Child Development in Context Lab at 512-471-5414.

July 13, 2011 5:55 pm

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