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According to Ann Luebke, Ph. D., and an associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience and a co-author of the study, “This study identifies a simple, safe and non-invasive method to screen young children for hearing deficits that are associated with autism. This type of technique may provide clinicians a new window into the disorder and enable us to intervene earlier and help achieve optimal outcomes.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by impairments in social and communication skills and the individual is likely to engage in repetitive and restricted behaviors. While many of the signs associated with ASD show up before a child reaches the age of 2, the majority of children with the disorder aren’t diagnosed formally until after the age of 4, which means important corrective therapies are began later and it delays their impact.
One of the biggest challenges to early detection of autism is to find ways of identifying children at risk for the disorder sooner and particularly in children with speech delays. Some of the earliest signs of ASD involve auditory communication.
However, most auditory testing relies on speech and it is often ineffective with children who are very young or who have communication delays.
In this new study, researchers used a technique which measured what are called “optoacoustic emissions.” The test is like a screening which newborns go through before they leave the hospital and it checks for hearing problems. Using a small microphone, the team were able to ascertain hearing deficiencies through listening for signs that the ear is having difficulty processing sounds. If the cells in ear aren’t functioning properly, the device fails to detect an emission which indicates that the inner ear or cochlear function is impaired.
The team tested hearing in children between the ages of 6 and 17, about half of whom had been diagnosed with autism. They found the children with ASD had hearing difficulty in a specific frequency that is important for processing speech.
Because the test is non-invasive, inexpensive and doesn’t require the subject to respond verbally, this technique could be adapted to screen infants which is an approach the research team is currently exploring.
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