Autism: A new hope for early diagnosis

Although we’ve all heard of autism, many of us don’t know the full ins and outs of the condition. With a new potential method of diagnosis findings its way into the headlines, we thought we’d fill you in with all you need to know.

What is autism? 

Two hands joined together in loving embrace
Early diagnosis means earlier care and support for people with autism (Photo credit: Roman Kraft)

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong mental condition that effects the way a person interacts, communicates with others and makes sense of the world around them.

Autism is more common than you might think. Roughly 1 in 100 people have autism – that’s 700,000 in the UK alone. People with autism often share similar characteristics: a love of routines; sensory issues from overwhelming noises, light and smells; and special, sometimes unorthodox, interests. If you’ve ever read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night Time you may recall Christopher – a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) – describing how routines make him feel safe. He also decides wether he will have an unpleasant or pleasant day based on how many red and yellow cars he sees in the morning.

Autism is a ‘spectrum’ condition meaning the severity of the condition varies from person to person. Some autistic people have graduated from university and successfully maintain jobs, whereas others may need constant daily support from specialists and loved ones.

The diversity of autism makes it hard to diagnose, particularly in young children, as parents are often told by school teachers or members of the public that their child is naughty or disobedient, without identifying the underlying cause of their behaviour. This is why early diagnosis is so crucial for people with autism; being able to receive the appropriate care and support as soon as possible can have a significant impact on learning and development.


A child builds a tower with toy blocks
Diagnosing autism early is essential for a child’s learning and development (Photo credit: Ryan Fields)

What’s new with diagnosis? 

Before a recent study published in the Molecular Autism Journal the only way we could diagnose autism was through professional behavioural assessments. This meant that diagnosing autism in children of two years and below proved to be very difficult. Conducted by researchers from the University of Warwick, this study identifies the possibility of diagnosing ASD through observing the presence of certain protein by-products in blood plasma and urine. There is thought to be a connection between some protein by-products, particularly those found in blood plasma, and ill health.

The study involved 38 children with ASD and 31 children without the condition – all aged between five and twelve years old. Blood and urine samples were taken and examined for protein by-products. The results show that the children with ASD had a higher presence of protein by-products, especially in blood plasma, than those who did not have the condition. Though at face value these results seem largely positive for biological diagnosis, other experts have warned about some of the dangers that this research carries.




What are the limitations?

Dr Rabbani, leader of the research team, admits herself that the research requires repeating before it can fully be put into clinical practice. Despite being confident in her method, questions have been asked about the study’s validity.

Some experts claim that it is not clear as to whether the method can distinguish between ASD, ADHD, anxiety, and other similar conditions. They also argue that, due to the blood and urine samples having only been taken on one particular day, it cannot be assumed that changes in these proteins do not differ on a day-to-day basis.

To shake off these criticisms, the study will have to be repeated on a different and larger sample. The method should be applied to different age groups and induct participants with different characteristics. If this proves to be successful, the study should then be applied to children who are yet to be diagnosed with autism. The results from this test should be compared to results drawn through traditional means of diagnosis to observe whether they differ in their outcomes and ultimately decide whether they can offer improvements to the current diagnostic assessments.

But despite these limitations, there is a chance that this new method of diagnosing autism could change the lives of many children as well as adults by ensuring that they get the care and support they need as soon as possible.


A young boy smiles whilst reading a book in the sun
New forms of diagnosis could be life-changing for autistic people (Photo credit: Ben White)


If you want to learn more about autism, visit the National Autistic Society website by clicking here

If you or someone you know thinks they have autism, contact your GP and ask to be referred to a specialist for diagnosis. 

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