Family study seeks better genetic understanding, treatments for autism

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, June 27, 2005)

Is it ever too early to begin evaluating children for autism? Local researchers are trying to answer that question. Early indications are the sooner children are identified and treated, the better.

Autism is a brain disorder that is typically diagnosed between ages 2 and 3. For unknown reasons, it affects boys more than girls, and results in severe social and language impairment and restriction in a person’s range of interest.

Dr. John Constantino, a child psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, and his colleagues have made significant contributions to understanding some of the genetic causes of autism.

They have developed the social responsiveness scale, a tool widely used to measure the severity of autism symptoms.

Now, Constantino is enrolling patients in a study of brothers and sisters of children with autism in the hopes of understanding more about the genetic structure in families, and specifically how children with subtle social impairment develop over a lifetime.

Potential volunteers include families who’ve already had a child diagnosed with autism. Younger siblings, specifically babies younger than 18 months of age, will be evaluated annually. The observational study involves videotaping young volunteers and carefully following their social development, facial expressions, gesturing and early language development.

Constantino believes understanding more about symptoms of autism when they occur, typically before 18 months of age, will lead to a better understanding of how to best treat affected children.

For information about the autism study, call 314-286-0068.

Kay Quinn is an anchor and reporter at KSDK (Channel 5).

Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.