In Brief

Autistic 3- and 4-year-olds respond to pictures of familiar toys, but not to photographs of their mothers, according to a recent study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The findings indicate that facial recognition tests could identify autism at younger ages.

In the study, Geraldine Dawson, PhD, of the University of Washington, compared the brain reactions to various stimuli of normally developing children, autistic children and children with mental retardation who are not autistic. She used a geodesic net to measure brain impulses from 64 places on a child's head.

The measurements showed that normally developing children and children of mental retardation had similar brain activity when viewing pictures of their mothers and when viewing pictures of strangers. Autistic children failed to recognize their mothers but reacted similarly to the other children when viewing familiar toys.

If Dawson's theories hold true, researchers could be able to detect autism early enough to intervene with behavioral therapies for social development that could eliminate or reduce the effects of autism.

Dawson plans to duplicate the mother-recognition experiment with 18-month-old autistic toddlers.