21 October 2011

Autism's facial characteristics revealed

by Kate Melville

Researchers from the University of Missouri have found distinct differences between the facial characteristics of children with autism compared to those of typically developing children. Because the face and brain develop in tandem, with each influencing the other, the researchers believe their findings could further our understanding of the origins of autism.

"There is no clear answer about whether autism is caused by genetics or by environmental influences," said the study's lead author, Kristina Aldridge. "If we can identify when these facial changes occur, we could pinpoint when autism may begin to develop in a child. Knowing that point in time could lead us to identify a genetic cause, a window of time when the embryo may be susceptible to an environmental factor, or both."

The researchers used a camera system that captured a 3-D image of each child's head and then mapped 17 points on the face. When Aldridge calculated the overall geometry of the face using these points she found statistically significant differences in face shape.

The findings, published in Molecular Autism, identified the following distinct facial differences:

The study also identified two sub-groups of autistic children who show further distinct facial traits that occur with specific characteristics of autism, such as language problems and repetitive behaviors. "Identifying these sub-groups within the group of children with autism allows better study of these children and why autism is so variable," said Aldridge.

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Source: University of Missouri-Columbia