There might be a new way for physicians to recognize children who are at risk for autism at an early age. Findings that were recently published in the journal Autism Research identify an inner-ear deficiency in autistic children that may have an impact on their ability to recognize speech and impair speech development.
A neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by repetitive behaviors and impaired social-communication skills, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is typically diagnosed in children over the age of four. Even though some children present signs of autism before the age of two, being diagnosed later in life can have long-term impacts on a child’s development. If an autistic child is not diagnosed until they are four years of age or older, this can significantly delay the impact of curative therapies. Just like any other medical disorder, optimal outcomes are achieved when intervention can happen at an early age.
Early detection of autism has been a challenge. Many tests for ASD rely on speech, and this is often ineffectual for very young children, or for children who have communication delays. Doctors can misdiagnose young children who demonstrate signs of ASD by testing speech rather than hearing. However, in the new study, researchers used a test that is inexpensive, non-invasive and does not require verbal responses from the subject. During the study, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience utilized a technique that measures otoacoustic emissions. A test similar to those used with newborn babies, otoacoustic emission tests can measure the response of the outer hair cells in the inner ear to certain clicking sounds or tones. For the study, researchers measured and noted the otoacoustic emissions in thirty-five high-functioning autistic patients between the ages of six and seventeen, and compared the results to forty-two neuro-typical children within the same age range. These tests revealed that autistic children had hearing insufficiencies at frequencies between one and two kilohertz (kHz), and the degree of the inner ear impairment could be linked to the severity of their symptoms.
This method is a safe, simple and non-invasive way to screen children and could be used as a window into the disorder. Knowing that difficulty in processing speech patterns can contribute to some of the symptoms of autism, allows for earlier intervention and better outcomes for everyone involved.