New research has potential to predict children at risk for autism

BOSTON — A groundbreaking study being done at Boston Children's that research say could potentially predict whether a child as young as 3 months old is at-risk for developing autism.

Right now, most children can't receive a reliable diagnosis until at least 1 year.

Chase Minicucci and his mother, Hillary Steele Minicucci. regularly go to Boston Children’s to track his development. Chase seems to be a typically developing toddler, and he’s learning to point and use words to express his needs.

However, Chase has been identified as at risk because is older brother, who is 7, has autism.

“We did the testing, and one day after his 4th birthday…the doctor said, ‘so your son has autism,’” said Hillary Steele Minicucci.

Hillary and her husband also have a 6-year-old daughter who does not have autism, but autism is more prevalent in boys.

Research shows one in five children whose siblings have autism will also be on the spectrum. Hillary spent the first year of Chase's life watching his behavior closely and worrying.

“I was literally making myself crazy over it,” she said.

Hillary was able to find a spot for Chase in a study at Boston Children's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, involving 99 siblings of children with autism.

Infants as young as 3 months old and toddlers up to 36 months old spend only a few minutes wearing a cap with more than 100 sensors. While wearing it, they watch a T.V. showing cartoons, which is also an eye tracker.

Boston Children's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director Dr. Charles Nelson said by studying their EEG signals, the electrical activity in the brain, they can predict which infants are likely to develop autism.

“The overall finding is they not to look at faces as much as children who have no risk factors. What we've seen is at 3 months of age we've seen patterns of brain activity that basically predict who, three years later, will develop autism,” said Nelson.

One of the big unknowns is when does autism develop, and Dr. Nelson said the study is shining light on whether it happens pre-natal or after birth.

“It's very unlikely that brain development was perfectly normal until birth and then something happened. the fact that we see it so early, just at 3 months, makes me think that it started before birth. But what derailed brain development, we don't know,” he said.

Dr. Nelson stressed the medical community is not at the point yet where a 3-month-old could receive a diagnosis, but the child could be flagged. The next step is developing early intervention strategies for that age group.

As for Chase, his mother said that right now, he doesn't seem to be exhibiting some of the warning signs, which has given her some much needed reassurance.

“I can start to enjoy my baby now,” she said.

The study is ongoing and open to three groups of children:

  • Babies with older siblings with ASD
  • Babies with no family history of autism who failed an autism screening
  • Typically developing babies

Because the EEG caps are relatively inexpensive, Dr. Nelson hopes someday soon every local pediatrician's office could have one and all infants could be identified within a critical window of time.