Frequently Asked Questions
Autism is a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction, communication, and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior.
Autism is typically diagnosed around 3 years of age. Some children are brought to attention and receive a diagnosis even earlier at 2 years of age. Although some behavioral characteristics, qualitatively similar to the defining features of autism, can sometimes be observed at younger ages (for example at 12 months and later), typical features sufficient for a diagnosis of autism are not usually present before age 2 years.
While we do not know specifically what causes autism, twin and family studies have demonstrated that genetic factors play a significant role in many cases. The IBIS study examines younger siblings (brothers and sisters) of children with autism. Younger brothers and sisters of children with autism are at increased risk of also developing autism than children without a family history of autism. By studying younger brothers and sisters of children with autism, some of whom will be diagnosed with autism at later ages, we have the opportunity to gain insights into the developing brain before a formal diagnosis is determined. While we understand the worries this idea may raise in some families the insights possible about the developing brain in autism, from such a study, are potentially extremely valuable.
In the search to understand autism, many research programs have begun looking at younger siblings of children with autism. While your child most likely does not have a diagnosis of autism, past family studies have found that siblings of a person with autism are at a higher risk for the disorder than members of the general population. Most recently, results from our MRI study of brain development in 2 year olds showed that brain enlargement is already present at a young age in children later diagnosed with autism. The data collected suggest that brain overgrowth may begin as early as 12 months of age, if not earlier. This current project aims to identify very early brain features that may be characteristic of infants at risk for autism.
The goal of our study is to increase our understanding of the timing and pattern of brain development in very young children with autism. This knowledge will help us to understand the underlying causes and brain mechanisms involved in autism and the relationship of those brain mechanisms to particular behaviors and psychological processes.
MRI or Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a technology used to take pictures of a person's brain without using X-rays. MRI uses very strong magnets to take these pictures. You can’t feel the magnets, but a MRI can be very loud. We will provide you with examples of these sounds to listen to at home, and during the scan your child will wear earbuds and headphones to protect their ears. We do all of our infant MRI scanning during sleep, so your infant will not be sedated or given any drug or medication. The IBIS Study has over 10 years of experience conducting these infant MRI scans, and 80% of our infants successfully participate in this part of the study! It can produce two or three-dimensional images using a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer. The magnetic fields MRI uses are safe and painless.
In particular some children with autism have been shown to have overall brain overgrowth by age 2 years. One large study of head circumference by our group suggests that this overgrowth begins (on average) around 12 months of age. We therefore propose to conduct an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scan of children at risk for autism (i.e., younger brothers and sisters of older autistic individuals) at around 3 months of age, with repeat scans through 24 months of age. In addition to targeting brothers and sisters of autistic individuals, we will use newly developed behavioral assessment tools and parental questionnaires to help us identify infants at risk for autism. Through the use of MRI technology we will capture images of the brain and perform sophisticated brain measurements. The data gathered in this study will provide important information regarding early brain development in autism, which may in turn provide clues that will eventually result in early rationale interventions (e.g., early behavioral or medication treatments) to improve outcomes for children with autism.