Last week I was invited to Birkbeck, University of London, for the launch of the STAARS project - Studying Autism and ADHD Risk in Siblings. The aim of this project is to learn more about the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with either autism or ADHD, in the hope that the study will provide long-term help to improve early detection and diagnosis of children with autism and ADHD.
It was a fascinating morning. We began by hearing about the work that the Babylab does, and the research that has already been done into early detection of autism. We were told that 40% of children with ASD also meet criteria for ADHD. Those working on the STAARS project feel it is important to understand what early risk factors might be specific to ASD or ADHD, and which risk factors might be common to both conditions. Children with an older sibling with one of these two conditions have a significantly higher possibility of also developing either ASD or ADHD, and so it is these younger siblings on which the new research will focus. As a parent of a child with ASD, I fully understand how earlier detection and diagnosis would be a welcome and positive step, leading to earlier support and earlier access to relevant services. It was also explained that approaches to treatment of the two conditions have, up until now, had separate traditions, but this might be about to change. Understanding early infant neurodevelopment may also identify new types of interventions. Early results of the research are expected in 2017/2018.
We were then taken on a tour of the Babylab itself, which was fascinating. It was a relaxing environment, and it was obvious that participating in the research is a fun experience for both the children involved and their parents. A parent whose child had been involved in an earlier phase of research was also present during the morning, and confirmed that this was very much the case, that it was great fun, and actually a lovely way of spending time with your baby. We were shown research methods such as the eye tracker, the EEG sensor net, and the Near Infrared Spectroscopy hat. This NIRS hat it was explained, was helping to fill a research gap that currently exists because of the practical problems of young children undergoing an MRI scan. It was explained that babies up until the age of about one could undergo an MRI scan when they were asleep, and children from about six years of age upwards were old enough to have the process of an MRI explained to them before undergoing it. However the gap exists in between these two ages, and the NIS hat is helping provide research to fill that gap. Research techniques include monitoring whether babies respond more to social cues (e.g. an image of someone smiling) or non social cues (e.g. a tractor), monitoring how the brain responds to socially interesting videos and sounds, play based assessments, questionnaires, and DNA samples to name a few.
So, in order to carry out this ground breaking research, infant scientists are needed! The STAARS project is looking for families who are expecting a baby or have a baby up to the age of ten months old, who also have an older sibling who has already been diagnosed with either an Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD. 200 families are needed, 100 with a sibling with autism and 100 with a sibling with ADHD. Following my morning at the Babylab, I know that I would absolutely get involved if I had a child young enough to take part. If you meet the criteria, and would like to know more you can visit the STAARS website here or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Knowing how hard our own personal battle was to get an autism diagnosis for my son, any research that may make this process a little easier in the future can only be a positive step. I know that an earlier diagnosis for my son would have meant earlier access to relevant support and services, and a much less traumatic time for not only my son but also our whole family. If you can, I would urge you to find out more, and get involved.