New approach to detect autism earlier

January 24, 2008

A new way of understanding autistic disorders, incorporating both psychological and biological factors, could lead to the conditions being picked up earlier, research from UNSW has found.

A review of research, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, integrates psychological with biological theories of autism.

The work relates to autistic and Asperger’s disorders, which are characterised by ritualistic behaviours – such as counting, tapping, flicking, or repeatedly restating information – and compulsive behaviours including as a rigid adherence to routine and a marked resistance to change.

“Until now we have relied mostly on psychological approaches in making a diagnosis, but this needs to be incorporated with the biological approach – utilising information from brain mapping technology,” says the paper’s author, Professor Florence Levy, from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry.

“This may help medical professionals detect conditions such as Asperger’s Disorder at an earlier stage.

“This won’t prevent it from developing, but it will help with remediation. It will also help to provide explanations to parents, who may have been worried about their child’s behaviour.”

The review found that psychological theories such as ‘Theory of Mind’ alone have difficulty accounting for the rigid and repetitive behaviours found in autistic disorders.

Studies of the brain, however, can offer an explanation.

“When the developing brain encounters constrained connectivity, it evolves an abnormal organisation, the features of which may be best explained by a developmental failure of neural connectivity, where high local connectivity develops in tandem with low long-range connectivity, resulting in constricted repetitive behaviours,” she writes.

The research does not identify what causes the constrained connectivity.

Source: University of New South Wales

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