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  Research
Early intervention lessens impact of autism


While medications have helped with related conditions such as depression and hyperactivity, the best way to deal with autism is to intervene as early as possible to treat the condition, says the director of a center studying children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).

New findings of the study show that—contrary to popular fears that half of autistic children never will speak—only 14 percent of autistic children are unable to talk by age 9 and 40 percent can speak fluently, says Catherine Lord, director of the Autism and Communication Disorders Center.

The number of children diagnosed with the disorder has increased tenfold during the past decade. The center has been conducting a sweeping longitudinal study of children with ASD that started when participants were age 2. Most of the subjects now are in their teens.

Children who developed even some simple speech skills prior to the first time they were evaluated at age 2 were far more likely to overcome the disorder that is now found in one out of every 200 children, she says.

"One third make incredible progress, with almost all children making real gains, even if they continue to have significant difficulties," Lord says. "About 5 percent of the children we have followed do not have symptoms of autism at age 9."

Another 10 percent are doing well but still have some mild social difficulties or repetitive behaviors or interests. Another 10 percent clearly have behaviors associated with autism but are able to compensate enough to spend much of their time in mainstream activities and classes, Lord says. The rest improve but continue to have behaviors and difficulties associated with the ASD, she says.

The center also is working on research showing autism "is very unlikely caused by a single gene," Lord says, adding that parents of a child with autism have only a 5 to 10 percent chance of having another child with autism. Having a fraternal twin with autism similarly gives the child the same odds of developing the disorder.

If one identical twin has autism, however, there is a 95 percent chance the other identical twin will develop ASD or a related disorder, Lord says.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. ASD impacts the normal development of the brain processes related to social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction, and leisure or play activities.

Lord, a nationally known pioneer in autism research, played a key role in learning how to properly diagnose 2 year olds a decade ago. She is confident the University's research will make it routine to diagnose autism for children just 18 months old, perhaps younger.

The center is conducting many studies and is looking for children ages 12-24 months old whose parents are concerned about possible ASD or related communication delays, as well as children from families in which two or more members have the disorder. The center seeks children with or without suspected communications disorders. A study of normal communication development from 12 to 24 months also is underway; it should yield important information about the early stages of language development.

For information about participating in the studies, call the center at (734) 936-8600.

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