DETECTING AND TREATING AUTISM AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE ARE THE LATEST WEAPONS AGAINST A DISORDER AFFECTING ONE OUT OF EVERY 150 CHILDREN -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
With no known cause or cure for autism yet, researchers are trying to detect the earliest signs of the disorder so they can begin treatment earlier, giving parents some hope against a condition the government now says affects about one in every 150 children. Lesley Stahl's report will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday, Feb. 18 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Dr. Sally Ozonoff is the vice chairman of research at the M.I.N.D. Institute of the University of California at Davis. The acronym stands for Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She has begun studying 200 babies from birth to try to determine the earliest signs of autism in order to diagnose it and begin treatment before 12 months. So far, she has found that early signs of autism include less interaction, less eye contact and the child paying more attention to objects than people.
Ozonoff's most reliable test is a response-to-name check. Most normal children will respond to their name called from behind them; about half of the children she sees who do not turn out to be autistic. In another test, babies are shown toys that a normal child would reach for and also make eye contact with the person holding it. Autistic children seldom show interest in toys held out to them and rarely look at people in the eye. Ozonoff thought she might be able to see the outward signs of the disorder as early as six months, but "the truth of the matter is, we cannot," she tells Stahl. Ozonoff is hoping to learn much more in the 18 remaining months of the study.
A colleague of Ozonoff's at the M.I.N.D. Institute, psychologist Sally Rogers, is a pioneering autism researcher who sees hope in early diagnosis. It's not a cure, but she believes early treatment with younger and younger children -- while the brain is still developing -- can make a big difference in the life of an autistic child. "[By using early treatment] we are certainly creating new connections in the brain," she tells Stahl. "We don't know how to touch the biology of autism, but I do think that the behaviors associated with autism can be reduced to the point where they are not obvious anymore."
Autism runs in families, and so the work to detect autism at an early age at the M.I.N.D. Institute and the seven other participating research centers in Canada and the U.S. is especially important to people like Valerie Arias. She has four children: two of them have been diagnosed as autistic, and the third, a toddler named Haydn, may or may not be. At 12 months, he failed the name-response test. "I knew my son wasn't hearing me...[and] it's not a hearing issue. He can hear," she tells Stahl. But then Ozonoff thought it was too early to make a sure diagnosis. "I would hate to cause the pain and anguish of having another child diagnosed on the [autism] spectrum and be completely wrong," says Ozonoff.
Two months later, however, Arias's son, Hayden, changed. At 14 months, he laughed, he showed interest in a toy and looked the researcher in the eye. He also exhibited some repetitive behavior, another sign of autism. "There are some encouraging signs," says Ozonoff, "but there are some mildly concerning signs," meaning Ozonoff probably won't be able to tell Arias if her son Haydn has autism for another six to 10 months. Says Arias, "I'm still leaning for optimism because...he's such a good boy...a good kid."