What's the best environment for a child with autism?

#freshfromthelab: Anna Gui tells us about her work on Social Attention and Autism

Anna Gui has spent the last three years analysing babies' brain electrical activity, engaging with machine learning, travelling the UK to visit dozens of families and asking for a sample of their saliva (as you do), all the while nurturing her own little one inside the womb and outside. She did all that to contribute to understandings of autism that are catalysing much of neuroscience at the moment. No wonder she is a member of our team! She really is the kind of brainy mamma that makes us all dream!

What did Anna find out through all this in the last few years? Loads! We are all eagerly waiting for her publications so that we can learn to! One of the findings that excited us the most is related to the brain electrical activity of babies with autism.

What? Babies with autism? If you happen to know a little about the most famous spectrum in the world, you will certainly know that autism is difficult to diagnose before the child is 2 years old, and the first symptoms tend to emerge around 18 months. Technically, babies with autism don't exist.

However, we know that autism runs in families. If we observe the brothers and sisters of autistic children, we know that a significant proportion of them will show autistic symptoms. If we make good notes of our observations (e.g., if we collect good data) and wait until the children receive a diagnosis, we are going to be able to compare data of babies that we know will turn out to have autism against the data of babies who develop typically. This is the logic on which the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS) study is based and of which Anna is a proud collaborator.

Amongst other data, Anna looked at the negative central (Nc). I know it sounds like a tube line for depressed people, but it really is the electrical activity picked up at the top of your head going *blip* a bit more negative about half a second after you notice an interesting thing (e.g., a face). Scientists call this kind of blips "ERP components" and the Nc has been observed in babies as young as 6 months (see here). Anna observed that children that are later diagnosed with autism differ from typically developing children on this respect: the blip is much smaller for the future autistic children, especially when they are looking at faces.

Let us zoom out a little. Why do we care about this? We as parents don't got around measuring negative centrals, do we? Even if we did, what good would it be to know that my 6-month-old baby's Nc is weird?

Well... it might actually turn out to be very useful. The Nc is relatively easy and completely non-invasive to measure. As we have discussed in the last blog posts, learning the early signs of atypical development will help us provide the best possible environment for children at risk. We want to make the most of their unique set of resources and limitations. For instance, it could be that having at-risk babies around the age of 6 months exercise with faces may protect them from developing some of the symptoms later on. It could be as simple as watching specific cartoons on an iPad.

The road is still long and an army of neuroscientists, psychologists, geneticists and parents are walking in every day. We hope we will soon have a better understanding of autism, which will allow us to support the development of autistic children so as to enable them to fulfil their full potential.

It will not always be about revealing genius abilities (such as Steven Wiltshire here), but it will be about helping everyone (with or without autism!) to have a life in which his or her true purpose can be expressed.

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