June 16, 2004 ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Contrary to popular fears that half of autistic children will never speak, new findings by the University of Michigan show just 14 percent of autistic children are unable to talk by age 9 and 40 percent can speak fluently.
Early intervention leads to better treatment, said Catherine Lord, director of the U-M Autism and Communication Disorders Center. The center has been conducting a sweeping longitudinal study of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) that started when participants were age 2 and followed them over many years with most of that subject group now in their teens.
The number of children diagnosed with the disorder has increased tenfold over the past decade.
Lord, a nationally known pioneer in autism research, played a key role in learning how to properly diagnose 2-year-olds a decade ago and is making new gains diagnosing young children at the U-M center. She is confident the University's research will make it routine to diagnose autism for children just 18 months old and sometimes even younger.
While medications have helped with related conditions such as depression and hyperactivity, the best way to deal with autism is to intervene as early as possible to treat the condition, she said. Children who developed even some very simple speech skills prior to the first time they were evaluated at age 2 were far more likely to overcome the disorder that is now found in one out of every 200 children, she added.
"One third make incredible progress, with almost all children making real gains, even if they continue to have significant difficulties," Lord said. "About 5 percent of the children we have followed do not have symptoms of autism at age 9."
Another 10 percent are doing well but still have some mild social difficulties and or repetitive behaviors or interests. Another 10 percent clearly have behaviors associated with autism but are able to compensate enough to spend much of their time in mainstream activities and classes, she said. The rest do improve, but continue to have behaviors and difficulties associated with the ASD, according to Lord.
The center is also working on research showing autism "is very unlikely caused by a single gene," Lord said, adding that parents of a child with autism have only a 5 to 10 percent chance of having another child with autism. Having a fraternal twin with autism similarly gives the child the same odds of developing the disorder.
However, if one identical twin has autism, there is a 95 percent chance the other identical twin will develop ASD or a related disorder, Lord said.
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. Autistic spectrum disorders impact the normal development of the brain processes related to social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction and leisure or play activities.
The center is conducting many studies and is especially looking for children aged 12-24 months old whose parents are concerned about possible ASD or related communication delays as well as children from families with two or more members have the disorder. A study of normal communication development from 12 to 24 months is also under way that should yield important information about the early stages of language development. For more information about participating in the research studies, call the center at (734) 936-8600.
On the web, visit: http://www.umich.edu/~umacc/
For more on Lord, visit: http://ipumich.temppublish.com/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?ExpID=966
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