A routine hearing test administered to newborns around the world may also be able to alert doctors and parents to autism, according to a study, “Prolonged Auditory Brainstem Response in Universal Hearing Screening of Newborns with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” published in the journal Autism Research in October. As noted in an article on the Spectrum News website, researchers found that children diagnosed with autism had a slightly slower response to sound on the ABR test, part of the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening, than non-autistic babies did. The ABR test is already used to screen nearly all babies born in U.S. hospitals.
“Even though [autism spectrum disorder] may not manifest clinically until age 2, 3, or 4, at birth there’s already a difference for some of these patients,” said study co-author Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, a pediatric endocrinologist, in an article on the Verywell website. “A lot of parents, understandably, see it happening at some point and say, ‘Oh my God, what happened at age 2?’ Well, this tells us for some of the patients, it’s already happening at birth—and maybe before.”
Researchers from the University of Miami and Harvard Medical School analyzed nearly 140,000 auditory recordings from babies born in Florida and matched the data with records from the Florida Department of Education indicating children with developmental disabilities. Of the 139,154 children in the data set, 321 were diagnosed with ASD by age 3 to age 5, according to the Spectrum News Article.
Dr. Kohane described the significance of the findings for autism research in the Spectrum News article as:
- Allowing researchers to use the ABR to screen for autism spectrum disorder.
- Providing researchers a biomarker that can be measured to determine the effectiveness of interventions or other therapies.
- Revealing a physiological response that may help researchers better understand the cause of autism.
“If you’re able to, with some degree of certainty, identify patients who are at risk for being on the spectrum, [then early interventions are] much more likely to be effective. That sometimes makes the difference between being able to live independently or not,” Dr. Kohane said in the Spectrum News article.
Earlier studies have also found a correlation between a slower response to the ABR test and autism, one in 2017 that tested autistic children ages 2 to 6, and another in 2012 that showed delayed brain response in infants later diagnosed with autism.
As noted in the ScienceDaily article, the findings could inform additional research and pave the way for evaluations that can better identify newborns with elevated autism risk by using standard hearing tests. The hearing test is only one marker of autism that could potentially be combined with other behavioral signs and genetic markers to facilitate earlier diagnosis and treatment and improve outcomes for patients with ASD, noted lead author Oren Miron, research associate, Department of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, and a PhD candidate at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.