By Laura McFarland
Rocky Mount Telegram
Kristina Day's gut tells her that her youngest son does not have autism.
In his short, 6-month life, William Day has not shown any of the symptoms, but she is not willing to rule it out. She said she was burned too badly before her oldest son, Matthew, 4, was diagnosed with the disorder.
"If (William) does have autism, it is high-functioning. I haven't seen the sensory issues, and I haven't seen the developmental delays ... but I don't know right now," said Day of Durham.
It wasn't the fear of having another autistic child that convinced Day to have William participate in a study about infants at risk for the disorder. Her motivation was more about helping doctors learn everything they can about autism.
William is one of a handful of babies already participating in a study to look at their brain development and behavior, said Dr. Heather Cody Hazlett, a co-investigator of the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He and the other infants involved in the study have been deemed at high risk for autism because they have an older sibling who already has been diagnosed.
The national study will look at 400 infants across the nation during the next five years – 100 of them at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hazlett said. The university already has enrolled 10 children and is looking for other families who would like to participate.
"The first thing that we would hope to accomplish is to get a better understanding of what is going on in early brain development in children with autism. Ultimately, we would hope to find biological features associated with brain growth that might help us with earlier identification or diagnoses of autism," Hazlett said.
Autism is a developmental disability that usually appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others, Hazlett said.
The disorder is typically characterized by the presence of repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. It is a lifelong condition with no cure and no single known cause.
The study looks at the infants at their 6-, 12- and 24-month-old marks, Hazlett said. If a child misses the 6-month tests, the study is enrolling some for the next stage.
Participating in the study means bringing the infant to UNC-Chapel Hill for developmental and behavioral testing and an MRI that is done while the child is sleeping, Hazlett said.
There is no sedation. The tests are repeated at all three age marks.
"It is the only study that I am aware of that is trying to take such a comprehensive look at very early brain development in autism. Because we don't know the cause of autism, we are looking for ways to better identify children who may develop autism early so that we can start intervention as early as possible," Hazlett said.
Day would have appreciated the benefit of early detection. She was suspecting something was wrong with Matthew when he was 5 months old.
He was diagnosed with a sensory-based feeding disorder and a sensory integration dysfunction at 13 months. At 18 months, doctors suspected autism, but they wouldn't confirm it until he turned 2, despite a growing list of signs.
"He can't tolerate certain textures, certain smells. He used to not be able to tolerate certain colors of food. He still eats a 50 percent puree diet. He cannot chew some hard food, and he can't actively swallow because of the way it feels in his mouth," Day said.
Day believes autism is a biological condition children are born with, not something they contract from a vaccine. That is part of what she hopes the study will help prove.
People who participate in the study are reimbursed for travel and lodging during the three visits, Hazlett said. There is also a small compensation for participating.
The study will be enrolling infants with older siblings with autism for at least a few more years, Hazlett said.