Right now, experts have little to go by in detecting autism other than carefully monitoring the regular developmental milestones in children, Young said.
"We do need something," he said.
"One of the hallmark features of autism is deficits in language acquisition," Eyler explained. "Whereas the typical developing kid will have an explosion of their language ability starting at about 12 months in both comprehension and production, kids in autism delay don't start comprehending or producing until later, and they don't ever have that kind of explosion. About 50 percent of kids with autism never develop language," she noted.
"We were interested in what was going on in the earliest period of life that could account for these differences," she continued.
For this study, Eyler and her colleagues monitored the brain activity of 30 children with an autism spectrum disorder (aged 14 months to 46 months) and 14 "typical" children of roughly the same age.
Children slept in the MRI machine while researchers read them bedtime stories. This allowed the investigators to see which parts of the brain were being activated in typical children versus children with autism.
"We were looking for areas of the brain that are more responsive during listening to bedtime stories than when they're not hearing that," Eyler said.
In the typically developing children, both sides of the brain involved in language processing were activated. In the youngest children, the activation was about equal in both the right and left hemisphere, while in the older children, activity became more pronounced on the left side, which is similar to adult patterns and to be expected, Eyler explained.
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