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UNC Study Looks at Autistic Kids' Younger Siblings

Posted September 19, 2007

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— About 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. The cause is a mystery, but researchers believe genetics play an important role.

To dig deeper, UNC is leading a national study looking at younger siblings of autistic children. They hope to find clues that may lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

In the summer of 2006, Jacob Crawford and his younger brother Luke were smiling. Weeks later, Jacob's smile was gone.

“So it was like a flipped switch one day, and he was gone,” said Jennifer Crawford, his mother. “He wouldn't answer any questions and for a long time we thought it was a behavior issue, you know, being two and a half.”

Later, Troy and Jennifer Crawford learned it was autism.

It's characterized by social difficulties, language abnormalities, narrow interests and ritualistic behavior. The sudden change in behavior is a pattern noticed in many children with autism.

“So these are behaviors that are coming on by the end of the first year of life, that's new information,” said UNC Psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Piven.

Piven, director of the UNC Neurodevelopment Disorders Research Center, said one of his studies showed the brain in 2 year old autistic children are 5 to 10 percent larger than in other children. He also found younger siblings of autistic children are at greater risk of it themselves.

He's leading a new study to examine those children - with brain imaging at 6, 12 and 24 months of age.

“But we now have tools and brain imaging and tools in molecular genetics that I think will allow us to take giant leaps in understanding this complex disorder,” Piven said.

The Crawfords are aware of the genetic risk for Luke.

“It is scary, especially since his older brother was so late in the process before he started his progression,” Troy Crawford said.

But the Crawfords know early diagnosis means earlier intervention and perhaps, more effective therapy.

The National Institute of Health is funding the project with $10 million. Piven is the principal investigator for sites including UNC, Yale University, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Washington.

6 Comments

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  • outlawtaxi Sep 21, 2007

    I remember when I was in high school I helped out in a kindergarten classroom a couple of days a week. There was a little girl in the class that just did not respond to anyone. She would do as she was told - sit at the desk, sit on the rug, go outside at recess, although she would not play with the other kids or acknowledge them, she just went off to herself and sat. She would not talk, although her parents said she did some at home, but she did not communicate at all in the classroom. I've wondered over the years if this child could have been autistic, and if there were some way to encourage her to communicate. I don't know that you can "cure" someone who is autistic, anymore than you can "cure" someone who has some other form of physical or mental disability, but it seems to me that an autistic child who can be helped to communicate with society would have a better chance at a successful life than one that couldn't.

  • JennyT Sep 21, 2007

    enderby, please do not think that I am suggesting that everyone can be cured. I am sure many parents of children with autism have tried everthing they could find to help their children. I was just making a suggestion in the hopes that someone might find some measure of success. The idea of bringing children "back" into this world is Jenny McCarthy's, not mine.

    I did not mean to offend anyone, so please forgive me if I did. I was just hoping to help.

    : )

  • enderby Sep 21, 2007

    JennyT - I know you mean well, but that is wrong on so many levels. Most parents of autistics I know have read every medical, parent written, and popular book on the subject. They have arranged for exhaustive therapies, medical testing, and have attended hundreds of hours of seminars and lectures. The Autism society runs a bookstore of subject related material which is quite impressive. If this book helps someone, fine, but I think it is just another book written for money which periodically comes out. Autism is trendy right now, this has good and bad consequences. This woman has not done any more for her child than millions of other parents, maybe less than many. A few years ago a parent wrote another book, "Son Rise." Similar goals and results with harsher methods. I think that author was also wrong.
    I have a classically autistic son (diag before age 3) who is now 19 and in college. If I ever tried to "bring him back into this world" he would think I was crazy.

  • JennyT Sep 20, 2007

    Please look into the book that Jenny McCarthy just wrote. She was on Oprah not long ago, telling the story of her son who has autism. She and Holly Robinson Peete were both able to bring their children "back" quite a bit into this world and out of autism. I am not saying it will work for everyone, but it can't hurt.

  • penny for your thoughts Sep 20, 2007

    avrecon - me too! I'm a Dukie with a son who has autisim. So you can bet your last dollar I'll be pulling for Carolina on this one!

  • avrecon Sep 19, 2007

    Something that will give me cause to pull for Carolina.