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Spotlight on Clinical Research: Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month
Dr. Chawarska, study staff, and participant
Photo by Robert A. Lisak
Dr. Katarzyna Chawarska, Ph.D., director of the Yale Toddler Developmental Disabilities Clinic (left) observes a healthy toddler at play in the clinic.
Early detection of autism and related developmental disorders is opening new avenues for identifying novel treatment targets and intervention strategies. Yale Child Study Center Autism Program is at the forefront of these efforts and is conducting a number of research studies for infants and young children who may have autism or are at risk of developing it.

Research shows that siblings of children with autism have a much greater likelihood of developing the disorder than children in the general population. In one study, younger siblings of children with autism are followed from infancy to about three years old. “We study their development comprehensively because we want to understand when and in which areas symptoms of autism emerge. The ultimate aim of this study is to identify markers for autism before the behavioral symptoms begin to manifest and to find ways of preventing the development of a full-blown syndrome,” said Katarzyna Chawarska, Ph.D., director of the Yale Toddler Developmental Disabilities Clinic.

In another study, researchers are following toddlers who are already displaying symptoms of autism. The symptoms may include:
•    Not responding when their name is called
•    Not smiling or vocalizing in response to their parents
•    Difficulty with eye contact
•    Limited use of communicative gestures such as giving, showing, or pointing
•    Delayed speech
•    Repetitive play or movements.

Children are followed until they are four years old in order to determine the best early predictors of their progress over time. This information will be critical for designing individualized treatment approaches for young children with autism. 

A third study is aimed at testing a highly innovative treatment approach for very young children with autism. While treatment typically focuses on behavior such as saying words or pointing, this study uses computer modeling and interactive technologies to help infants and toddlers develop better strategies for attending to their social partners. This is a critical treatment target, according to Dr. Chawarska. “You cannot learn about something you’re not attending to,” she noted.

Children with autism typically have difficulty interpreting social cues and in early development often fail to direct their attention toward crucial sources of social information, such as human faces or voices. These three studies use eye-tracking technology to map atypical visual attention in the early stages of the disorder and in some cases deliver treatment by helping children learn to grasp social cues. Since this technique doesn’t require language or fully developed cognitive skills, it has the potential to aid in the early detection and treatment of autism in very young children.

This type of research benefits the broader community of children who have or will have developmental disabilities in the future. “These kinds of studies allow us to discover factors involved in atypical development of social attention in autism,” said Dr. Chawarska. “This is important because the brain is incredibly plastic early in development and if we can identify these factors early, we can intervene and have an impact on the child’s development in ways and magnitudes that have never before been possible.”

The studies are currently recruiting infants and toddlers between birth and 3 years of life.  Younger siblings of children with autism and children suspected of having autism or other developmental delays (such as delayed speech and language) are invited to participate. Children who are developing typically are also invited to take part in these studies.

For more information on the study for siblings of children with autism, contact Amy Margolis, or 203-785-6237
For more information on the study for toddlers with symptoms of autism or the treatment study, contact Evelyn Pomichter, or 203-764-5933.