Autism affects about 1 in 100 children in the United States — a rate that is disconcertingly high and increasing significantly every year. In fact, the sudden increase in cases has left both parents and doctors scrambling for earlier diagnoses and more promising treatment options.  

Although diagnosis of autism has improved drastically over the last decade, it still takes weeks, months, or even years of interviews and exams for many children to receive a diagnosis. On average, children who are affected with autism are diagnosed around age 3, but many, especially children from minority or low-income families, aren't diagnosed until they are of school age. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the sooner parents, teachers, and health care providers can begin treatment. And experts agree that earlier treatment improves a child's long-term chances of development.

A new study from researchers at Stanford University offers some promising data on helping health care providers make an accurate autism diagnosis at a very early age. For the study, which was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the research team looked at the brain scans of 24 autistic children between ages 8 and 18, and compared them with scans of 24 children without autism. They broke the scans up into tiny, cubical sections and then used computer analysis to compare the size and structure of individual cubes in autistic and non-autistic brains.

And what they found might significantly influence the future of autism treatment and diagnosis. Researchers noted that the brains of autistic children have a distinctive topography, including a pattern of organization, especially in regions of the brain dedicated to communication and self-awareness.

Of course, it's too soon to tell if these brain scans can be used across the board to provide accurate and early diagnoses for autism, but it certainly warrants more research and may offer health care providers an earlier method for diagnosing autism — giving children an earlier start at treatment and a better shot at success.  

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