Stock Photos: Provo - Brigham Young University (BYU) 01

The campus of Brigham Young University is pictured Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

There is no doubt that autism impacts many families in Utah.

Researchers at Brigham Young University have been on the forefront of research into ways to best help families as they confront the challenges of autism.

Recently, a team of researchers at BYU began exploring the role that bacteria in the stomach and intestines at an early age may play in the development of autism. The hope is that their findings may ultimately lead to biological markers or tests that will allow earlier detection of autism than is currently possible.

This innovative research was made possible through an interdisciplinary grant funded by BYU and the Simmons research endowment. This interdisciplinary approach brought a wide range of researchers together from different disciplines that traditionally do not collaborate very often on research.

With the complexity of autism, this interdisciplinary approach has many benefits that are being realized with this project. The team is led by Becky Lundwall with a background in psychology and includes John Chaston of microbiology, Scott Weber of microbiology, Terisa Gabrielsen of school psychology, Ryan Kellems of special education, and Marc-Aurel Martial of nursing.

Research has consistently shown the importance of addressing the challenges of autism at the earliest age possible. This is commonly referred to as early intervention.

Early intervention, when available, is important because it improves the developmental potential for children with autism. These interventions can help children recognize and respond appropriately to the social cues of others, and this can make their life experiences much smoother.

Of course, the tricky thing can be finding children who need intervention, since many do not come to the attention of an experienced autism diagnostician until they are older.

Currently, the absolute earliest age a child can reliably be diagnosed with autism is 18 months, and this is by a highly trained expert, who can be difficult to find in Utah.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 2% of children are diagnosed with autism at an early age. Still, it is possible that many children are missed because many are not diagnosed until they are much older.

The interdisciplinary team at BYU is hoping to find a way to diagnose infants and toddlers earlier, so children and their families can receive the assistance they need, which is critical for their long-term success.

Children who receive this help at a younger age have consistently been shown to have better long-term outcomes, which diminishes the difficulties for them and their families as well as the need for community services.

The research team at BYU is exploring the possibility for earlier detection of autism by examining the composition of the bacteria in a child’s gastrointestinal tract.

By exploring connections between gut microbes and autism in infants who have an older sibling with autism, the interdisciplinary team is hopeful they will discover clues that will assist in predicting symptoms of autism at an earlier age than is currently possible. For comparison, the team will also look at infants without any relatives with autism.

This is an exciting and ongoing project.

The research team at BYU is actively seeking infants between 8 and 12 months old — with or without an older sibling with autism — to participate in the project. They are recruiting participants from Utah Valley and the greater Salt Lake City area.

The study consists of three phases. In the first phase, parents are mailed a kit to collect a small fecal sample from a diaper change. This kit can either be collected by researchers coming to the home to collect the sample or with a scheduled drop off on BYU campus. Both collection methods will have COVID-19 protections in place.

In the second phase, infants will complete a simple computer-based assessment and parents will complete a questionnaire.

Finally, during phase three, all infants in the study will receive a developmental evaluation by a trained professional. Infants who are selected for the study and need an autism evaluation will receive one at no cost during the study.

Families will receive compensation, which will vary and will depend on the infant’s level of participation.

If you are interested, please contact Dr. Becky Lundwall by email at cogndevelopment@gmail.com or by phone at 801-422-5977.

Thank you to Rebecca Ludwell, Ph.D and Ryan Kellems, Ph.D for providing this important information.

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