Autism expertise leads to earlier diagnosis

November 7, 2016
Jed Elison and Jason Wolfe

Jed Elison (left) and Jason Wolff

Patricia Pacheco was surprised that her infant son, Thomas, didn’t seem to notice her.

“All the books I had read said you should be staring lovingly into your infant’s eyes and he should look at you,” says Pacheco. “Well, he never looked at me. He was my first son, so I really didn’t have a concept of what was normal and what wasn’t.”

And, unlike most other kids, Thomas was content to sit by himself with a single toy. “I just thought I had a really good baby,” says Pacheco. By age 1, Thomas wasn’t saying any words. By age 2, Thomas had delays that fit on the autism spectrum.

The diagnosis opened the gate to insurance and intervention to help Thomas advance physically and socially.

The Pachecos’ experience underscores the importance of early diagnosis of the conditions known as autism spectrum disorder. The average age of diagnosis currently ranges from four to five years. That represents more than two years of missed opportunity—because early treatment can pay big dividends.

“We know from intervention studies that the earlier you intervene, the better the outcome,” says Jason Wolff, an assistant professor in educational psychology.

Wolff and colleagues like Jed Elison are detecting objective differences in the brains of children who have autism spectrum disorders as early as six months old.

Their work is contributing to a national effort to understand this complex array of developmental disorders.

“There is no single gene or single cause,” says Suma Jacob, a physician-scientist in the U of M Medical School. “There are over 100 genes ... and that has led to the challenge in finding [answers].”

To more fully understand who will show signs of autism and why, the U of M joined the SPARK initiative—a nationwide study that will include 50,000 individuals with autism and their families.

“It is the largest autism project ever planned,” says Jacob.

For families like the Pachecos, the study outcomes have the potential to change their lives for the better.