Newborn Screening May Contain Autism Clues

by Shaun Heasley | January 8, 2021

A simple, routine test may be able to detect autism in newborn children, researchers say.

Tests regularly given to newborns to screen for hearing loss could also offer clues about whether they are on the spectrum, according to a new study.

The tests measure a child’s auditory brainstem response, or ABR, to determine how the inner ear and brain react to sounds.

For the study, researchers looked at almost 140,000 auditory recordings from children born in Florida and matched them with the state’s educational records. They found that kids later diagnosed with autism showed slower brain responses during the infant hearing tests.

“We’re not at the point just yet where we’re telling clinicians to use ABR testing as a determinant for autism in babies,” said Elizabeth Simpson, an associate professor at the University of Miami who worked on the study published recently in the journal Autism Research. “But we are saying that this study presents a promising direction in how ABR testing can be used as a method for precise autism detection at birth.”

Simpson noted that children with autism may process sound differently even if their hearing is normal, so researchers are considering how adding more layers to the auditory screening could better pick up on a child’s risk for autism and other developmental issues.

“The importance for diagnosing autism early during infant and child development, when interventions can have the most impact, cannot be overstated,” said Oren Miron, a research associate at Harvard Medical School who led the study. “Any additional tool that could clarify diagnostic clues would be invaluable in that regard.”

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