Arriving at an autism diagnosis is often a complex process. But a study suggests that simply examining the way a child sniffs could be an accurate indicator of the disorder.
Most people would not sniff as deeply in a sweaty locker room as they would in a kitchen where cookies were just baked. Examining the sniffing habits of children with and without a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has revealed that autistic children tend not to adjust their sniffing depending on the pleasantness of an odor, according to a report published in the journal Current Biology.
"We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow," said Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in a statement.
Since the test doesn't require a verbal task, it could one day help doctors diagnose autism in very young children, permitting interventions to begin at a younger age. Just observing the way children sniffed in response to pleasant and unpleasant odors, the researchers were able to identify them as having or not having a diagnosis of ASD 81 percent of the time. When presented with these odors, non-autistic children tended to adjust their sniffing within a fraction of a second, but children with ASD usually did not adjust their sniffing at all.
"The difference in sniffing pattern between the typically developing children and children with autism was simply overwhelming," Sobel said in a statement.
The degree to which a child's sniff patterns deviated from "normal" sniff patterns also correlated with the severity of the child's social impairments.
This was however a small, early study, so the sniff test will have to undergo more extensive trials before it can be ready for clinical use. The study included 18 children with ASD and 18 typically developing children, almost all of whom were boys.
The researchers hope to test whether children with other brain-related developmental disorders display this marked difference in sniff response.
Photo: Juhan Sonin | Flickr