Autism is a brain development disorder that usually begins during infancy and childhood, before the age of three. There are a wide spectrum of autistic behaviors and symptoms but most are characterized by abnormal social interaction and communication. A new study, reported at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago, shows that unique brain wave patterns are present in autistic children and they show a delay in processing individual sounds.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia studied 64 autistic children between ages 6 to 15. They had the children listen to rapid beeps through headphones and measured the brain’s response to the sounds using a non-invasive technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG). They compared the brain waves of the autistic children to non-autistic children and found that the response to each sound was delayed in the autistic children.
Dr. Timothy Roberts, the study’s lead author said, “We tend to speak at four syllables per second. If an autistic brain is slow in processing a change in a syllable…it could easily get to the point of being overloaded.” The delay may be for only a fraction of a second, but the effect can compound and lead to difficulty in speaking and understanding speech of other people. Read: Autism Causes Parents To Have Fear And Confusion.
One-third to ½ of kids with autism do not develop speech at all and these verbal deficits appear early in life. These children have delayed babbling as infants and lack of verbal response. As they grow older, they do not form consonants, words and word combinations. Autistic children have trouble linking words to their meanings. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 40% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) do not talk at all. Another 25-30% of children have some words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them.
The researchers admit that the results are preliminary and they do not know if the patterns found in the study are present in all autistic children. They are excited by the early results because the ability to test infants with non-invasive MEG could lead to earlier diagnosis and early speech therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
With 1 in 150 U.S. children being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, there is a wide search for the cause.
Another study, published in Neurology, suggests that pregnant women who take the epilepsy drug Depakote (also called, Valproic acid, Depakene and Sodium valproate) may have a higher risk of a child developing autism.
Children who were exposed to the drug in the uterus were seven times more likely to later develop autism. The women with epilepsy who took Depakote had an autism rate of 6.3%, compared to the 1% of women who did not have epilepsy and did not take the drug during pregnancy.
The findings were quite preliminary, however, and Dr. Michael Goldstein, Vice-President of the American Academy of Neurology said, “Prolonged seizure could cause blood flow problems to the baby, which could cause injury” so doctors and patients need to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of taking anti-seizure medication. Many experts believe that seizures are worse for the babies than the medicine and uncontrolled seizures can be fatal for both the mother and the child.
These studies add to the growing research of the many potential influences that may contribute to autism. At this time there is no known cause and no cure for Autism Spectrum Disorders.