Siblings With Autism May Hold Key To Early Signs

By Susan Ruttan for the Edmonton Journal

Babies from the Edmonton area who have an older sibling with autism could soon be part of a national study on early signs of the neurological condition.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, a top researcher who has just been hired to set up an autism research centre at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.
Zwaigenbaum, 38, currently works at McMaster University in Hamilton, which has a well-established autism research program.

“I feel this is an opportune time to expand these national programs to Edmonton,” Zwaigenbaum said today.

Autism shows itself as a child’s inability to socialize with parents or other children. They often appear indifferent to human contact. Children are normally diagnosed with the disorder at age three or older.

Zwaigenbaum drew national headlines a year ago when he announced study results showing it’s possible to pick up signs in a baby just 12 months old that predict whether the baby will develop autism.

Once he moves to Edmonton in August, Zwaigenbaum will start recruiting local families with an autistic child for his research. Nearly 800 children currently come to the Glenrose for help with autism.

His study of early signs of autism uses siblings of children who have autism. Those siblings are at 50 times higher risk of autism than other children.
Currently, his research team tracks 250 families in Hamilton, Toronto and Halifax who have a baby sibling of an autistic child. They track the babies from six months onward, watching for signs like lack of eye contact, lack of responsive smiling, and lack of engagement in games like “peekaboo.”
A group from Edmonton will now be added. “Ultimately what our research will do is help clinicians and other providers in the community to be aware of what autism looks like at different ages,” he said.

He said the study reinforces what parents have been saying for years – that they sensed something different about their child long before the official diagnosis..

Zwaigenbaum is the latest of a series of top pediatric specialists recruited by Dr. Terry Klassen, head of Capital Health’s child health program.

“McMaster really wanted to keep Dr. Zwaigenbaum, and put on a very valiant attempt to do so,” Klassen said.

Deb Gordon, CEO for the Stollery Children’s Hospital, said the Stollery is still a young growing hospital and needs to be recruiting top talent.

The hospital began in 1996 as the Stollery Children’s Health Centre, located in the University of Alberta Hospital. It was officially named a hospital in 2001.
Diagnoses of autism in children have increased greatly in recent years. Four boys are diagnosed with autism for every girl.

Zwaigenbaum is involved with other scientists in studies looking at how autism develops in a child and the genetic causes of autism. Projects he’s involved in have received $2.6 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

His position here is funded by the University of Alberta and the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.

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