Autism could be detected in toddlers by getting them to perform a simple “sniff” test, suggests new research, reported Mirror.
People might normally take a big sniff of something they expect to be pleasant, such as a rose, but limit the flow of air through their nose when they walk into a public toilet.
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But now researchers have found that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t make the natural adjustment like other people do. Autistic children carry on sniffing in the same way, no matter how pleasant or awful the scent.
The findings suggest that non-verbal tests related to smell might serve as useful indicators of autism when youngsters are just a few months old.
Professor Noam Sobel, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, said: “The difference in sniffing pattern between the typically developing children and children with autism was simply overwhelming.”
He said earlier evidence had indicated that people with autism have impairments in “internal action models,” the brain templates we rely on to seamlessly coordinate our senses and actions. But it wasn’t clear if this impairment would show up in a test of the sniff response.
To find out, Prof Sobel and his colleagues, presented 18 children with autism and 18 normally developing children with pleasant and unpleasant odours and measured their sniff responses.
The researchers found that while typical children adjusted their sniffing within 305 milliseconds of smelling an odour, the autistic children showed no such response.
The difference in sniff response between the two groups was enough to correctly classify them as children with or without a diagnosis of ASD 81 per cent of the time. And the researchers also reported that increasingly aberrant sniffing was associated with increasingly severe autism symptoms, based on social but not motor impairments.
Prof Sobel said: “We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow.
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“This raises the hope that these findings could form the base for development of a diagnostic tool that can be applied very early on, such as in toddlers only a few months old. Such early diagnosis would allow for more effective intervention.”
Now the researchers plan to test whether the sniff-response pattern they’ve observed is specific to autism or whether it might show up also in people with other neuro-developmental conditions. They also want to find out how early in life such a test might be used.