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Harvard Medical School and University of Miami researchers have been conducting studies through which they hope to create a new method of detecting autism in toddlers through a sound test.

Previous studies allowed scientists to understand that sensory systems in autistic children and adults are different from those of non-autistic individuals. Those studies provided a basis for the recent research through which scientists administered a standard hearing test on millions of newborn children. The researchers hope that the test data will allow them to develop a new type of test to determine whether newborns have autism.

Standard hearing tests are commonly used to test for hearing loss in newborns, and the same data collected through those tests might be useful in early autism tests. The hearing test observes auditory brainstem response (ABR) to determine if a toddler’s brain and ears process sound. The research has not reached a point where it is a definitive test for autism in toddlers, but scientists are convinced that they are on the right track based on promising findings.

Why detecting autism at birth is essential.

Early detection of autism may provide a chance for interventions that may reduce the impact of the condition. Oren Miron, a researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, says any tool that can offer better diagnostic clarity will provide extreme value. Researchers have so far evaluated large amounts of data collected from infants in Florida to test for hearing impairments.

The tests are done at maternity wards and are so subtle that they can be conducted while babies sleep. Researchers have so far evaluated recordings from 140,000 babies in Florida. The data indicates that babies born with autism are more likely to have lower auditory responses during the ABR tests. Scientists used the data to identify 321 children diagnosed with autism at around 2 or 3 years old whose ABR tests indicate low auditory responses when they were born.

Autism spectrum disorder in children is linked to how they process sound. Researchers hope that the consistency that they have observed so far with the data will help them develop a method of identifying autism at birth.