June 27, 2014 (London) -- Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have more rapidly growing brains and bodies at the beginning of the second trimester than children without the disorder, new research suggests.
A small study looking at ultrasound scans that checked for fetal defects showed that children who went on to develop ASD had greater head and abdominal sizes at around 20 weeks' in the womb than did their healthy peers.
"This gave us a small window into the fetal development of these children, and it looked like something about autism was happening at that 20-week mark," lead researcher Lois Salter, a medical student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, tells Medscape Medical News.
"If we could explore this further, it might help with diagnosing earlier and treating earlier. It just opens a whole range of possibilities if autism is detectable this early on," Salter says.
The findings could also lead to earlier and better education, she says. "We're not waiting for symptoms to show up at age 3 or 4, when you've lost years of potential education for parents and for children."
The results were presented at this year's International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
"Previous research suggests that autism may be detectable from infancy," write the researchers. They wanted to explore whether it could be detectable even earlier.
Scans to detect fetal defects have been routinely done since December 2008 in the Lothians, a region of the Scottish Lowlands.
The researchers sought to examine these scans for 40 children who were later diagnosed with ASD, and for 120 children who didn't develop the disorder. They took maternal age and other factors into account.
Salter says the investigative team hopes to keep following up with the data as more children are diagnosed with ASD and more scans are added into the system.
'Furthers Our Understanding'
Bernice Knight, MBChB, MRCPsych, of the U.K.'s University of Bristol, tells Medscape that these findings dovetail with a study she and her colleagues recently completed. It looked at traits that might predict ASD later in childhood.
Knight, who was not involved with the current study, says these new results have the potential to be very helpful to doctors and others.
"There is so much that we don't understand about autism and about autism spectrum disorder. And given that it's clearly a neurodevelopmental disorder, I think looking at those early stages of development [is] going to be fundamental to improving our understanding," she says. "So concentrating research into that area is likely to be fruitful and helpful, ultimately, for patients."
The study authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.