About one in 59 children in America is diagnosed with autism – a complex neuro-developmental disorder. 

The CDC reported it’s nearly four times more common among boys than girls.

The Autism Center of Excellence at Yale School of Medicine is where families like Melissa Pateo’s are taking part in possible breakthrough research. 

Her 4-year-old son, her oldest, has autism.

Melissa said, “That journey was one of the most challenging that we have been through.” 

Her second son, 6-month-old Zayden, is monitored closely here.   

“And in the case that Zayden happened to be on the spectrum as well, we definitely would want to catch it as early as possible,” she said.

Finding ways of intervening early starts with looking into how atypical brain connections factor in autism.

Director Dr. Kasia Chawarska explained, “It can help us understand what’s different about brain wiring and brain firing or actual activity in children with autism, compared to those who don’t develop the disorder.”  

Autism, behaviorally, can be detected at 18 months, but Dr. Chawarska said most children are not diagnosed until 4 to 5 years old. 

“We can diagnose autism reliably in the second year of life,” she said, “So, what happens between birth and second year of life, at the time symptoms come online?”  

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That silent period has co-investigators Drs. Laura Ment and Dustin Scheinost focused on a critical time: When the baby is 30 weeks in utero. 

Dr. Scheinost said, “We are suspecting that we are going to find a lot of individual differences for markers of risk for these kind of social impairment.”  

This is the point when the brain doubles in size and triples in weight.

He added, “And we think we’ll be able to capture a time point where everyone is kind of equal and then starts seeing how they diverge.”

Measuring brain circuits in the third trimester could reveal crucial information.

“It will tell us, at least, when these brain differences are happening,” said Dr. Scheinost, “And that could at least guide us to where and the time we need to target for intervention.” 

Melissa chose to undergo fetal imaging with Zayden, as well as participating in a number of ACE studies.

“It takes away my worries and my anxiety and just me wondering because I don’t have to wonder. I’ll know just as early as like any signs or evidence,” she explained.

The newly-created Autism Center at Yale is sponsored by the National of Institute of Mental Health.   

The program is looking for more participants and families, both high and low risk, for ongoing research. 

For more information about the ACE program at Yale and its investigators, click here.

You can also call 203-764-5933 or email ACE@yale.edu.