Researchers Identify Autism Biomarker
The brain wave study used noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography, MEG for short. It measures magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in brain nerve cells, and records brain activity in real time.
Researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia had 64 autistic children ages 6 to 15 listen through headphones to a series of rapid beeps while under the helmet-like device, which recorded the brain's response to the sounds. Those brain waves, shown as highlighted areas on an imaging screen, were compared with responses in a group of non-autistic children.
In autistic children, response to each sound was delayed by one-fiftieth of a second.
"We tend to speak at four syllables per second," said Timothy Roberts, the study's lead author and the hospital's vice chairman of research. If an autistic brain "is slow in processing a change in a syllable ... it could easily get to the point of being overloaded."
Although the study did not include younger children, the researchers believe that it may be possible to use the same method of brain wave measurement for diagnostic purposes in very young children.
The reporter suggested that the benefit of using this biomarker for diagnosis would be that "it could mean behavior treatment much sooner." But as I see it, a diagnostic biomarker would be valuable for precisely the opposite reason—because it would take autism out of the subjective realm of behavioral observations and define the condition, for the first time, in terms of hard science. Autistic children would receive more of the services that they need from speech and language professionals, instead of spending large amounts of time in intensive behavioral programs that lack solid research to support their practices.
Although reasonable people can differ on the issue of whether some autistic children may be helped by behavioral therapies, it is a fact that behavioral practitioners are not trained or licensed to provide speech therapy or related services. If autism is to be defined in terms of auditory processing differences, then I believe the logical conclusion is that services for autistic children should be provided primarily by, or under the direction of, speech and language professionals.