Israeli scientists identify autism within a year after birth - study

Researchers from Bar-Ilan University found that early diagnosis and therapeutic intervention to treat symptoms of ASD were helpful in averting severe deviations in neurodevelopment.

 Baby on physio ball (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Baby on physio ball
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Scientists may have found a way to diagnose autism within the first year of one's life based on proper identification of symptoms, according to new studies from Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

Both studies were carried out by Bar-Ilan's Mifne Center for Early Intervention in the Treatment of Autism and the Weisfeld School of Social Work Continuing Education Unit's Dr. Hanna A. Alonim and were published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical International Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatal Care. However, they both differed in their methodology. 

The first study focused on using video recordings of 110 infants (84 boys and 26 girls) and was carried out over the course of a decade. These infants were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 2-3 and, with that in mind, videos of them from their first year of life filmed by their parents were examined and analyzed. The parents had no suspicion regarding possible autism diagnosis at the time of filming, so the videos were used as a control group. 

The parents were further asked questions regarding when symptoms were first noticed. 

A number of symptoms were detected in this study such as an aversion to touch, delayed motor development, excessive activity or passivity, lack of reactions, refusing to eat, an accelerated head circumference growth and, most of all, a lack of eye contact.

Susana Cristo Anzola is pulled by her daughter Olivia, a 4-year-old on the autism spectrum, to enter a closed playground during the lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/SUSANA VERA)Susana Cristo Anzola is pulled by her daughter Olivia, a 4-year-old on the autism spectrum, to enter a closed playground during the lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/SUSANA VERA)

The study also examined the correlation of different symptoms, such as lack of eye contact and excessive activity.

Based on these findings, a total of 89% of the symptoms could be observed when the baby was just 4-6 months of age - however, it was difficult for parents to notice these signs.

These findings are especially important as they can make diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) easier at this young age. 

ASD is a neurological disorder and is considered a neurodevelopmental condition. Though not an illness or disease, as often mischaracterized, it is defined by a wide range of symptoms, some of which may seem contradictory. 

For instance, some people on the spectrum might be overly empathetic to others' emotions, while others might struggle to be empathetic. Some might have a strong aversion to social situations while others might be incredibly outgoing and want to make friends.

Further, autistic people can span a range of functionality, from high functioning to low functioning, some of whom can go about their days with little to no problem and others who can struggle with what many neurotypical individuals would consider basic skills. 

Further, while ASD itself cannot be "treated," many of its symptoms can. This is a common misconception among people who view autism as a disease or illness. Autism itself lasts a lifetime and is not a sickness that can be "cured." Rather, its symptoms require support, help and therapeutic treatment.

The exact cause behind ASD is unclear, if it even exists. Many theories such as vaccines, bad parenting or divine punishment have been proposed over the years, but have been widely debunked and are not considered valid by any scientific authority in the world.

Only in recent years has growing attention to this condition caused further research to find that it is far more prevalent than previously believed. 

In some cases, autism symptoms may be harder to detect at an older age as the symptoms "mask" themselves. This can be problematic, as it means the necessary treatment and support these symptoms would warrant are not provided at an early enough age to affect neurodevelopment and could later in life go undetected.

In other words, delayed therapeutic treatment for these symptoms, or a lack of therapeutic treatment altogether, risks these symptoms worsening as the individual's neurodevelopment deviates - something that could possibly have lifelong implications.

This is why early treatments, and ergo early diagnoses, are so important.

In Israel, autism is often diagnosed around a year-and-a-half after birth, =far earlier than in the rest of the Western world, where the average age is two-and-a-half. 

The Mifne Center has developed a tool to help screen infants for autism. This tool, called ESPASSI, was used in a pilot testing project at Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) in Tel Aviv.

The importance of early treatments for these symptoms was highlighted in the second study, which compared the effectiveness of treatments on 45 toddlers between 1-2 years of age and 39 toddlers between 2-3 years of age. The specific treatment in question was the Mifne Approach, a method pioneered by the center to treat toddlers of ASD symptoms. This particular therapeutic approach is based on family therapy and attachment theory, which necessitates the entire family be given support and learn necessary coping skills. 

This method of treatment addressed not only the cognitive aspects of neurodevelopment but also physical, motor, sensory and emotional development.

Overall, reducing the time between early detection and therapy was found to have been far more successful in preventing neurodevelopment from severely deviating. It also is important for another aspect: the family. When a parent is in constant worry, this essentially triggers a vicious cycle of sorts, something that is very harmful for neurodevelopment. If the parents have the appropriate knowledge, support and coping mechanisms, however, they can properly help their child develop.

“These two studies confirm that there is a window of opportunity and it makes complete sense that early detection and intervention will affect neuroanatomical development components at a stage which is most influential for the rapidly developing brain,” Alonim explained in a statement. 

“Therefore, bridging the gap between early detection, assessment, and intervention is crucial for the future of any infant at risk.”

These findings also support research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which found that those who were diagnosed with ASD at a young age can have better social development.

This study, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Autism in October, found that children diagnosed with ASD at two-and-a-half years of age or younger were three times as likely to improve in core social development.

"We believe this larger improvement is due to the larger brain plasticity and behavioral flexibility that is a fundamental characteristic of early childhood," said Prof. Ilan Dinstein, head of the Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research at BGU.

These findings are important, as while Israel may diagnose ASD at a younger age than most of the Western world, the country's treatment of autistic people, especially adults, has come under criticism.

In October, many parents and teachers protested outside the Knesset demanding that the budget for work activities for people with autism over 21 be raised.

Gadi Zaig and Hannah Brown contributed to this report.