Findings from baby sibs autism study could be “a game changer”

February 8, 2013

Siblings of children with autism as young as six months of age show autism-like traits in early childhood, according to a study by a cross-Canada collaboration involving two NeuroDevNet researchers.

Dr. Peter Szatmari of McMaster University and Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum of the University of Alberta are co-authors on “A Prospective Study of Autistic-Like Traits in Unaffected Siblings of Probands With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” published this month in JAMA Psychiatry.

The findings are ground breaking, as this is the earliest that autism traits have ever been identified in children. Typically, the age of diagnosis is three, or later. A collaboration including researchers in Hamilton, Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax, followed 500 children born to families with a history of autism. The group studied babies twelve months and younger. Forty percent of the children had autistic traits at 12 months, and only half went on to be diagnosed with autism at age three.

“If we can intervene in this window (six to eighteen months),” says Dr. Szatmari, “it’s not inconceivable we’ll be able to prevent autism. That would be a remarkable game changer.”

An earlier study found that younger siblings of children diagnosed with autism have an approximately 20% higher chance of developing an ASD, than a child in the general population. The current findings show that siblings that display autism traits as babies may not go on to be diagnosed with autism, but still demonstrate traits of the disorder that require intervention, including communication difficulties, and lower cognitive skills.

 These difficulties may first show themselves as issues with school, increased anxiety and difficulty making friends.
Among babies with no family history of the disorder, the indicators could point to a number of developmental issues.
The findings have generated excitement in the autism research community. “A lot of groups around the world are looking at [the study] and seeing if they can replicate it,” says Dr. Szatmari.

Funding support for the Baby Siblings study has come from NeuroDevNet, CIHR, and Autism Speaks Canada.

A Prospective Study of Autistic-Like Traits in Unaffected Siblings of Probands With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Stelios Georgiades, MA; Peter Szatmari, MD; Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, MD; Susan Bryson, PhD; Jessica Brian, PhD; Wendy Roberts, MD; Isabel Smith, PhD; Tracy Vaillancourt, PhD; Caroline Roncadin, PhD; Nancy Garon, PhD
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(1):42-48. doi:10.1001/2013.jamapsychiatry.1

Information in this article was drawn from:

"Autism traits found in babies" a Jan. 31, 2013 article in the Hamilton Spectator by reporter Joanna Frketich, and information on the Autism Speaks website.