Parents of potentially autistic children can begin to breathe a sigh of relief.

Thanks to the efforts of Plattsburgh State Research Assistant Professor Alisa Woods, Clarkson University Assistant Professor Costel Darie and PSUC Faculty Emeriti Jeanne Ryan, it may be possible to test for autism in a new and exciting way, leading to earlier diagnoses and an added peace of mind.

These three individuals are looking into the possibility of tracing autism through key proteins, referred to by researchers as biomarkers, that can be found in saliva. They have done one study so far, with a sample size of 12 individuals. This study is pending publication. Woods said their next study will likely be 32 because “the larger the sample, the more statistically valid it’s going to be.”

Ryan, a former full-time PSUC faculty member with expertise in both biopsychology and neuro-psychology, said saliva study is experimental, and they are opening up a bigger study to offer legitimacy.

“Autism is a social communication disorder,” Ryan said. “Psychologists are going off of social cues at this point [for diagnosis]. The part of their [the patients] brain that involves social understanding is atypical.”

This is a two-part procedure where behavioral measurements are taken at the PSUC campus, and then biochemical analyses take place approximately two hours away at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Ryan heads the behavioral aspect of this study. She tests children for autism, and with the appropriate permission from both the parents and the PSUC Human Subjects Committee — which approves studies on campus and ensures that no harm will come to children or their families — she takes a saliva sample and approves it for use in the study.

Ryan said the diagnosis is not as clear in children younger than 3 years old. In the span of 12 months to 3 years of age, there is a wider margin of error. “The earlier the diagnosis, the greater the likelihood the symptoms will be ameliorated or reduced,” she said.

“The diagnosis becomes clearer at the age of 3,” Ryan said. “There are a set of symptoms that research has shown if these are present in children, the prediction of autism increases significant-ly. When a child is 3 years old, there is greater certainty of an autism diagnosis.”

Dr. Patricia Egan, associate professor of psychology at PSUC and director of the Nexus Program from which some children have been discovered as potential participants in this study, expressed her enthusiasm about this research.

“I think it’s wonderful just to find biomarkers,” Egan said. “The earlier kids get diagnosed, the better.”

In regard to this study, both Woods and Ryan have said they follow the scientific method to the letter. This is a double-blind experiment, meaning that neither the researchers who analyze the saliva samples nor the participants know who is taking part in the study. This helps to remove bias in the study and ensures its validity.

“Ethically, we have to do it that way,” Woods said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Ryan uses a tool called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, or ADOS, regarded by Woods and many others as the definitive test for autism diagnosis.

In the earlier days of research, however, both Woods and Ryan had considered using blood as a medium of testing for autism over saliva.

Ryan said they both analyzed the risks of taking blood and realized that it would be easier and less traumatic to children if they used saliva as a testing medium.

“Taking blood would be unpleasant, I would feel bad,” Woods said. “I don’t want to hurt children.”
Woods and Ryan appear optimistic about their findings. Woods urges those individuals who may be interested to contact her at awood004@plattsburgh.edu.

Man Ling Kwan, a graduate student and assistant to Woods and Ryan, said she hopes that one day this study may revolutionize the diagnostic process of autism.

“I hope so. I believe so,” she said. “The pilot study already demonstrated a positive direction, but we have to scale it out to more people to make sure the sample size is big enough.”

Egan reported the rate for autism increased from 4-in-10,000 in 1979 to 1-in-68 in 2014. Egan said that the broader diagnostic criteria of autism means that more children are diagnosed and are getting the help they need. The families are helping the field and helping the future families.

“We appreciate anyone who participates because they help us advance our understanding of this condition,” Woods said.

Email Tim Lyman at timothy.lyman@cardinalpointsonline.com.

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