Sniffing test could help diagnose autism

There is a new method for detecting autism and it involves the nose.  According to a study featured in the journal Current Biology, autism in children may be detected by their reaction to pleasant and unpleasant smells.

Comparing the reaction of the study’s 36 respondents – 18 of whom were diagnosed with autism and 18 were not — to various scents, researchers conclude that autistic children take longer to determine a pleasant from an unpleasant smell.

Researchers reached this conclusion after they measured the amount of air children breathed after having been exposed to the smells of sour milk, rotten fish, soap and roses using an olfactometer.   An olfactometer is a device that has two tubes.  The first tube is used as channel for the different smells.  Children were asked to smell the samples through this tube. The second tube on the other hand, measured the amount of air children inhaled for each sample. Typically developed children, researchers noted, quickly adjusted their breathing within 305 milliseconds after sniffing the different smells while those with autism took so much longer.  The logic behind this is that people tend to inhale deeper and longer pleasant scents and try to breathe in as little of or avoid the unpleasant smell as possible.

What adds credibility to the study is the fact that researchers were not informed which of the children participants were autistic and which ones were not.  “But using the test [we] were able to identify the children on the spectrum 81 percent of the time,” says the research report.

The implications of this study could not be underestimated.  If future research along this vein would have the same findings, then this technique would allow for early diagnosis and treatment of autism in children.

‘We hope that it can be used as a diagnostic marker to diagnose autism at a very young age [especially since] this is nonverbal measure, and it only requires breathing,’ says Liron Rozenkrantz, a neuroscientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, to the  New York Times. Rozenkrantz is one of the authors of the study.

Lucia Murillo of the advocacy group Autism Speaks couldn’t agree more.  In an interview with Voice of America she emphasized the significance of early intervention in the treatment and management of autism to the children and their families. ‘Definitely, the earlier we can diagnose a child, the better simply because you’re able to work on some of the delays or weaknesses a child might have and use the strength they have to improve their skills.’