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Can hearing tests really detect autism in new-borns?

NHS challenges Mail Online headlines and says there is more work to do to establish proper evicence

Monday 31 July
Can hearing tests really detect autism in new-borns?

Editor - July 31 at 07:00

"A hearing test is being hailed as a revolutionary technique to spot autism years earlier than current methods can," the Mail Online reports. The test is based on measuring how the inner ear reacts to sound. But while the test shows promise, the headline is premature. The study the report is based on only looked at boys aged 6 to 17 years old and was not used to diagnose autism spectrum disorder. In the study, 35 boys with autism and 42 boys the same age without autism had a range of hearing tests.
The first tests measured their ability to detect sounds at different levels and frequencies. All boys had the normal range of hearing. But other tests used to measure the ear's ability to process and distinguish between similar sounds showed boys with autism had a 25% smaller processing response to sounds in the mid-range. The researchers say this could make it hard for them to discriminate between sounds – for example, similar vowel sounds in speech. The processing tests – using a measure called otoacoustic emissions – are regularly used to screen newborn babies. The hope is they could also be used to look for difficulties in sound processing in line with those found in these boys with autism. But we don't know whether babies with autism have the same sound processing difficulties, so more work needs to be done before it is confirmed (or not) that such a technique can be used to "diagnose autism" in babies.
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Rochester and was funded by the US National Institutes of Health.
Notes: Autism is a developmental disorder that affects behaviour and social communication. It's usually diagnosed in children aged around two to four years old. It is known that there's a link between the condition and the ability to hear and process sounds – for example, some children with autism are very sensitive to sounds, while others don't respond to them at all. However, hearing problems seem to be part of autism, rather than a cause of it.
This study doesn't mean, for example, that deaf people have autism. This study is interesting because it found a particular part of the ear, the cochlear, produces different effects in sound processing in children with autism, compared with those without the condition. It may help to understand how autism starts – for example, whether it happens before birth, when the baby's ears and other organs are still forming.
Source:NHS Choices

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