Study suggests infants be tested for autism if older siblings diagnosed

VANCOUVER — Canadian researchers have led a study suggesting infants be tested for autism spectrum disorder before symptoms appear if an older sibling has already been diagnosed with the neurobiological condition.

The odds of a younger sibling having autism are up to 20 per cent, but most children miss out on early intervention for challenges in behaviour and communication because they’re often not diagnosed until age four, previous studies have shown.

Research by Dr. Stephen Scherer, senior scientist and director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, found a standard blood test analyzing the DNA of infants with a sibling who’s been diagnosed with autism would provide earlier information for families.

The findings were published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications.

They involve 288 infant siblings from Canada and the United States showing that by age three, 157 of the children were either diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or developing atypically. Of the 157 children, seven per cent were carrying a gene that put them at a very high risk of developing autism.

Of the seven per cent of kids, 50 per cent were diagnosed with autism by age three and an additional 35 per cent had other developmental challenges.

Scherer said families of autistic children are often concerned about whether a sibling could also be at risk.

“It’s the number one question families have and no one’s ever wrapped any statistics around that and that’s what we present for the first time, with this paper,” he said.

Further genetic testing looking at the entire genome, beyond a blood test called microarray analysis, is being conducted with all the families in the study in hopes it will provide more information about the risk of autism, Scherer said.

The participants were part of the Baby Siblings Research Consortium, which includes independent research groups in Canada, the United States and Europe, though this study included 10 sites in North America, four of them in Canada, Zwaigenbaum said of the testing that is part of an ongoing decade-long research project looking at behavioural predictors of autism.

“Based on the findings of the study, we’re suggesting that the test be focused on younger siblings,” he said. “What we’re arguing is that it could be informative at a time where we’re not likely to see any behavioural signs. So it provides an option for presymptomatic testing to identify infants at highest risk.”

Families who are informed about a younger child’s risk of autism could initiate strategies to help children develop early communication skills before assessment of behaviour by a specialist and intervention by a therapist as part of a cost-effective approach to care, Zwaigenbaum said.

“I think we may be moving to an exciting new time where both biomarkers and developmental surveillance can provide complementary information to help us identify infants at risk.”

Further research could lead to a change in practice recommending siblings be given the readily available test for autism, he said.

The study also found that children did not necessarily inherit or share all the genetic variants with an older sibling with autism, which is consistent with previous research.

Long wait lists for assessment of children exhibiting signs of autism is a major concern among families across Canada, and both Scherer and Zwaigenbaum acknowledged that is problematic.

“It’s not happening fast enough but we can’t hold back the science because of it,” Scherer said.

“The current system doesn’t have the capacity to respond but (the study) definitely moves the needle in terms of the potential to develop strategies that could be applied presymptomatically,” Zwaigenbaum said. “It really further accelerates the move to earlier and earlier intervention.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cilantro and Chive was voted in the top three in no less than 13 different categories in the 2020 Best of Lacombe Readers Choice Awards. Photo by Megan Roth/Lacombe Express
Cilantro and Chive opening in Red Deer

There will now be two Cilantro and Chive locations. The restaurant announced… Continue reading

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

Mariah Bell of the United States competes during women’s freestyle program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Canadian Keegan Messing earns bronze at Skate America in Vegas, Chen wins gold

Messing earns 266.42 points at Skate America in Las Vegas

In this Oct. 7, 2020 photo, chef Sohla El-Waylly prepares Swedish meatballs during a taping of “Stump Sohla,” in New York. El-Waylly became a familiar face on YouTube as a standout on Bon Appetit’s test kitchen channel. But during the nationwide racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd, she was among members of the test kitchen who accused the channel’s owner, Conde Nast, of discriminatory practices. She departed Bon Appetit in August after failed negotiations. Her new show is her own, pushing her to deploy her talent, charm and encyclopedic culinary chops to solve challenges. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
‘Babish’ expands as pandemic boosts YouTube cooking shows

Daily views of videos with “cook with me” soaring

FILE - Oprah Winfrey arrives for the presentation of Stella McCartney’s ready-to-wear Fall-Winter 2019-2020 fashion collection in Paris on March 4, 2019. Winfrey is setting aside her usual book club recommendations and instead citing seven personal favorites ranging from James Baldwin’s landmark essays in “The Fire Next Time” to Mary Oliver’s poetry collection “Devotions.” She is calling her choices “The Books That See Me Through,” works she values for “their ability to comfort, inspire, and enlighten” her. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
`The books that see her through’: Winfrey suggests seven

Mix of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and spirituality

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
John Horgan says he will work across party lines to find ideas that work for B.C.

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s election results show a divided province with Liberal… Continue reading

President Donald Trump gestures from the top of the steps of Air Force 1 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. When people in the United States talk about moving to Canada to escape four more years of Donald Trump, it’s usually either a punchline or a pipe dream. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Susan Walsh
Move to Canada? A pipe dream for some Americans is a parachute for Canadian expats

WASHINGTON, Wash. — When people in the United States talk about moving… Continue reading

The Cogeco logo is seen in Montreal on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world in the coming week

TORONTO — Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world… Continue reading

Most Read