WEDNESDAY, May 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- There may be a
simple way to help spot signs of autism early on in siblings of
children with the disorder, new research suggests.
The study, which included 184 children at high risk of autism,
found that those who developed the disorder typically started
showing some "red flags" as early as 12 months of age.
Specifically, they had an unusually high rate of repetitive
behaviors, such as flapping their hands or arms, rocking back and
forth, or focusing obsessively on one toy.
Some amount of repetitive behavior is normal for babies, said
lead researcher Jason Wolff, an assistant professor of psychiatry
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"But in typically developing children, that usually peaks around the age of 6 months," said Wolff, who is scheduled to present his findings on Saturday at the International Meeting for Autism Research, in Atlanta.
"In children who go on to develop autism, repetitive behavior is still highly prevalent, or even increasing, at the age of 12 months," Wolff said.
Wolff said an advantage of looking at repetitive behaviors is
that parents can report on them with a simple "pen-and-pencil
measure." And it's possible that such a tool could be used to
screen for autism in average-risk children, too, he added.
More research is needed before repetitive behavior can be used
as part of an early screening tool, according to Dr. Andrew
Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen
Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"This is a promising observation, but it needs refinement before it can be turned into something clinically useful," said Adesman, who was not involved in the study.
Wolff agreed. For one, he said, his team wants to fine-tune the
way repetitive behavior is measured. And any screening tool would
have to not only reliably catch autism, but also have a low risk of
"But this study is a good start," Wolff said.
The precise causes of autism are not clear, but genes are
involved. When a child has autism, his or her siblings are at high
risk themselves -- with a roughly 20 percent chance of developing
the disorder, Wolff noted.
And there's a "great need" for ways to spot those children
early, he said. In general, Wolff noted, the earlier that speech
and behavioral therapies for autism can be started, the better
children do in the long run.
But until now, researchers haven't looked at whether repetitive
behavior can serve as an early red flag.
"At one time, people thought repetitive behavior didn't really show up until preschool," Wolff said. But recent research, including the current study, has shown that to be untrue.
For the study, Wolff's team followed 59 children at average risk
of autism and 184 who were at high risk because an older sibling
had the disorder. When the children were 12 and 24 months old,
their parents completed a standard questionnaire on repetitive
Overall, 42 of the high-risk children were diagnosed with autism
at age 2. And those children had shown many more repetitive
behaviors at the age of 12 months -- an average of four to eight
different types, Wolff said, versus one or two for kids without an
Still, that's an average difference between two groups, Adesman
pointed out. The trick, he said, is to turn that into an assessment
that can reliably spot the individual kids who will develop
"There's a risk you could identify too many kids, and give some of them services that they don't need," Adesman said.
He agreed, though, on the need for early screening tools, and
said this study points to one potential way.
Researchers are looking into other ways, too. In a separate
study reported at the meeting, a team at Boston Children's Hospital
used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to gauge brain activity in 208
babies and toddlers. They found that the readings, taken with
electrodes on the scalp, were able to distinguish high-risk
youngsters from children at average risk of autism.
And in some cases, the EEG readings were able to separate
children who went on to develop autism from those who didn't.
Because findings from both studies were presented at a meeting
and not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, the results
should be considered preliminary.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on
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