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Health Team

UNC Study Looks at Autistic Kids' Younger Siblings

Posted September 19, 2007 4:58 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2007 6:54 p.m. EDT

— 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.