Fixation on geometric patterns might be an early sign of autism in toddlers as young as 14 months old, a new study suggests.
Identifying autism early is important because children may benefit from beginning treatments earlier, the researchers say. The new findings could help to create test to evaluate children, said study researcher Karen Pierce, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego.
"The miracle of plasticity of a young and developing brain [means] the brain is responsive and connections are being formed early on," Pierce told MyHealthNewsDaily. "If we can intervene before those connections take hold, it can be fruitful for the baby."
In the study, Pierce tested 110 toddlers aged 14 to 42 months. Of those toddlers, 51 were developmentally normal, 37 were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and 22 had other developmental delays. The toddlers were shown a one-minute video on a split screen one side of the screen had a geometric pattern, the other had images of active children.
Among the children who were diagnosed with autism, 40 percent spent more than half their time watching the geometric images, compared with 1.9 percent of typical children and 9 percent of children with developmental delay.
Not all children with autism fixated on the geometric images the majority of the time, Pierce said. However, every child in the study who was fixated on the patterns for more than 69 percent of the time was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
The reasons for this fixation aren't completely clear, but Pierce said it may have to do with some kids having restricted interests and a preference for repetition.
"There's something that's part of the disorder that flags these kids to love repetitions," she said. "Not all kids love it to an extreme form, but certainly a fair number of kids do."
However, parents shouldn't use geometric patterns to try to diagnose their children with autism, Pierce said.
At present, autism diagnosis can usually be made around age 3 at the earliest, according to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a pediatric developmental disability research organization.
About 1 percent of children aged 3 to 17 have an autism spectrum disorder, which includes autistic disorder and Asperger's Syndrome, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms and severity vary, but people with autism are unable to communicate and interact with others in a normal way.
There is no cure for autism, but drug treatments may help with symptoms and behavioral treatments may improve a person's ability to communicate. Early intervention includes training and therapy that facilitates more normal language skills, communication and social behavior, Pierce said.
"Early identification and intervention is the most important predictor of positive outcomes for children with autism," said Allison Gilmour, assistant director for programs and community outreach at the Organization for Autism Research, who was not involved in the research. "The earlier parents and professionals identify symptoms the better."
The study still needs to be repeated with larger numbers of children, but the implications are interesting, Gilmour said.
"Children who receive early intervention are more likely to develop speech and skills needed for self-care, school success and community functioning," she said.
The study was published online Sept. 6 in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.