Hearing test may predict autism risk earlier: study

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By Robert Preidt

health day reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 1, 2016 (HealthDay News) — A simple hearing test can help identify young children at risk for autism before they’re old enough to talk, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY, say they have identified an inner ear problem in autistic children that may impair their ability to recognize speech.

“This study identifies a simple, safe and non-invasive method to screen young children for hearing deficits associated with autism,” said study co-author Anne Luebke, associate professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and of neuroscience.

“This technique may provide clinicians with a new window into the disorder and allow us to intervene earlier and help achieve optimal outcomes,” she said in a university press release.

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by impaired social communication skills and restricted, repetitive behaviors. While many signs of autism show up before age 2, most children aren’t diagnosed until after age 4, the researchers said. They suggested that if treatments could start earlier, they might have more impact.

For the study, Luebke and his colleagues tested the hearing of children aged 6 to 17 with and without autism. People with autism had difficulty hearing in a specific frequency (1-2 kilohertz or kHz) that is important for speech processing.

According to the study, the degree of hearing loss was associated with the severity of autism symptoms.

Hearing loss “has long been associated with developmental delay and other problems, such as language deficits,” said study co-author Loisa Bennetto, associate professor of clinical and social sciences in psychology.

“Although there is no association between hearing problems and autism, difficulty processing speech may contribute to some of the disease’s core symptoms,” Bennetto said.

If future research confirms the findings, the study authors say screening could help identify children at risk for autism earlier and possibly get them services sooner.

“Additionally, these results may inform the development of approaches to correct hearing loss with hearing aids or other devices that can improve the range of sounds the ear can process,” Bennetto said.

The hearing test is noninvasive, inexpensive and does not require a child to respond verbally, so it could be suitable for screening infants, the researchers said.

The study was published in the journal autism research.

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