Case Study: Early Predictors of Autism

How ASF-Funded Research Led to a Better Understanding of Early Predictors of ASD

Early diagnosis and treatment are key to better long-term outcomes for people with autism, which is why the Autism Science Foundation has led the way in funding scientific research that unlocks early predictors of autism in very young children. This important work has led to young children getting diagnosed earlier and more quickly receiving the treatments they need to thrive.

Two of the first predoctoral fellowships supported by ASF focused on very early behavioral and biological features in infants with a high probability of diagnosis. These studies followed families with a child with autism and an infant sibling. Siblings of children with autism have a 15x greater chance of an autism diagnosis than the general population, giving further evidence of a strong heritable contribution in ASD. Also, studying infant siblings from birth makes sense because they are more likely to be diagnosed with autism and scientists can track their behavior from birth to learn about early warning signs. Early research from these smaller studies indicated changes in brain activity, unusual prelinguistic communication patterns and atypical emotional reactivity in many of these infant siblings. These findings opened the door to better understanding of not just the early signs of ASD for better detection, but also the biological targets of interventions and early services that help support development in the first years of life.

Researchers from these individual studies realized their findings would be even more valuable if they pooled their resources, which would speed up research and deliver answers to families faster. The result is a collaboration called the Baby Siblings Research Consortium, which was established to share data across these smaller projects to build larger data sets. ASF became the primary funder of the BSRC in 2017. The BSRC has information from more than 5,000 families across the world. Its findings have led to the determination that a younger sibling of a child with autism is much more likely to receive an autism diagnosis themselves, as well as providing critical information about early warning signs that can lead to diagnosis and intervention.

Current BSRC projects funded by ASF focus on biological features of ASD, including brain activity and atypical brain structure that can be seen prior to 12 months of age—among them changes in the size of different brain regions as well as the activity of cells in different regions. New technologies supported by ASF have allowed clinicians to detect communication in infants before speech is possible. We are the first organization to take these findings in siblings to the “next generation,” providing resources to understand the early biological and behavioral features of children born from non-autistic siblings.

Thanks to funding by the Autism Science Foundation, the BSRC has grown to over 50 investigators, launched six new analyses to understand the early signs and features of ASD, created a video library for families, developed an informational website and significantly expanded the database for even greater use by researchers.