Research Explores Early, Late-Onset Autism
> 8/8/2007 2:12:26 PM

Autism is very rarely diagnosed before the age of 3. But previous studies have suggested that it may, in fact, begin to manifest itself much earlier in some infants, and current research divides the condition into early and late-regressive onset categories based on the age at which symptoms first appear. In early onset cases, irregularities in development may be noted as early as 14 months.

The most recent study observing autism in very young children involved 125 subjects, most of whom were at significant genetic risk of developing autism because it had previously appeared in their immediate families. The children were observed at 14, 24, 30 and 36 months, with researchers using various behavioral models to gague each infant's social, communicative and perceptive skills. The majority of infants studied were not diagnosed with the condition, but 30 of the subjects (slightly less than 1/4) were, and their diagnoses could be almost evenly divided between early and late-onset autism.

The differences between the classifications were obvious: by age 14, early-onset subjects were already performing at levels far below those of the control patients in the areas of making gestures, focusing gaze and imitating sounds. The abilities of late-onset cases at the same age were nearly indistinguishable from  those of standard subjects, but by 24 months deficiencies were stark: less frequent and very limited social behavior, difficulty in responding to the attentions of others, and a diminished capacity for shared positive affect such as receiving emotional support from a mother or caregiver. The only major difference between the two groups seemed to be that the early-onset children displayed nearly identical symptoms one year before their late-onset counterparts.

Early intervention has proven essential to the treatment of autistic individuals, helping to ease their development as much as possible with the ultimate goal of allowing them to operate in a standard school environment. After further studies like this one, researchers should be able to refine the techniques used to help these children so that specialists can step in even earlier in the developmental process. Independent experts have already begun to develop formal assessment guides specifically designed for children 2 years of age and younger.

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