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Early Repetitive Behaviors could Indicate Autism

Update Date: May 15, 2014 03:01 PM EDT

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disorders characterized by a lack of communication and social skills. Autism is typically diagnosed in young toddlers at around the ages of three to four. Based on several studies, researchers believe that detecting the disorder at an even earlier stage could improve the success rates from treatments, such as behavioral therapy. In a new study, researchers set out to find more ways of detecting autism and reported that early repetitive behaviors could help diagnosed the disorder.

For this study, the researchers recruited 184 children who were considered to be high-risk of developing the disorder and 59 children at an average risk of autism. High-risk children had an older sibling with autism. At the ages of 12 and 24-months-old, the children's parents filled out a standard questionnaire about their toddlers' repetitive behaviors such as flapping their limbs, rocking back and forth and obsessiveness with a single toy. The researchers stated that these behaviors performed in small amounts tend to be normal in infants at around six-months-old.

The researchers reported that 42 percent of the high-risk children ended up getting diagnosed with the disorder. These children had showed more signs of repetitive behaviors at the age of one with an average of four to eight varying signs. Children who were not diagnosed with the condition showed an average of one to two signs of repetitive behaviors.

"But in typically developing children...[the repetitive behavior] usually peaks around the age of 6 months," said lead researcher Jason Wolff, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reported by WebMD. "In children who go on to develop autism, repetitive behavior is still highly prevalent, or even increasing, at the age of 12 months."

The researchers believe that this form of detection could easily be used by all parents. Parents who are concerned can jot down their infants' repetitive behavior and then report them to their pediatricians. The researchers and some critics of the study reported that more research should be done to refine this observational technique.

"This is a promising observation, but it needs refinement before it can be turned into something clinically useful," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, N.Y, who was not involved with the study. He cautioned that, "There's a risk you could identify too many kids, and give some of them services that they don't need."

The study is scheduled to be presented on Saturday at the International Meeting for Autism Research, in Atlanta, GA.

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