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Early Autism Detection Focus of $1.4M Grant
Early Autism Detection Focus of $1.4M Grant

Two decades ago this year, Dustin Hoffman put a Hollywood face on autism in the Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Since then, public awareness of the disorder has surged. But medicine is just beginning to deal with detecting the disorder at the earliest stages in life, when intervention has its best, and possibly only, chance to make a difference.

Experts say that today in the U.S., one in every 150 children at age 8 has a medical condition that falls within what scientists call the autism spectrum of disorders.

"It's more common than diabetes in childhood," said Amy Wetherby see: http://www.comm.fsu.edu/Faculty/amywetherby.php, FSU professor of communication disorders and well-known autism researcher. "It's more common than Down's Syndrome, more common than severe hearing disabilities."

That may be why-when Wetherby partnered with the non-profit organizations Autism Speaks and First Signs to create a website aimed at helping parents and pediatricians identify the signs of autism in infants-the site had more than 10,000 registrants in its first month.

The new site provides a video glossary of typical and atypical behaviors in children younger than 24 months. It went live in October 2007 and can be accessed through the web sites for Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), First Signs (www.firstsigns.org), or Wetherby's FIRST WORDS Project (firstwords.fsu.edu).

"The response to the ASD Video Glossary has been overwhelmingly positive, and more people have registered than we anticipated," Wetherby said.

The project, for which Wetherby collected more than 2,000 videos, just received an additional $1.4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue to search for early signs of autism spectrum disorders, and to determine how common the group of disorders is among children under 4.

In addition to overseeing video selection for the glossary, Wetherby provided dozens of the clips from her own project. FIRST WORDS is an ongoing study she started in 1998 that identifies autism's red flags in young children.

A web link to a sampling of clips is also being distributed via the new Autism Toolkit for pediatricians developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which now recommends that pediatricians screen all children between the ages of 18 and 24 months for autism spectrum disorders.

"The younger we can find them, the better they do (with intervention)," Wetherby said.—C.S.