In lieu of an effective medical test, physicians rely on assessments of behavioural patterns and social skills to diagnose autism. But new research suggests that this process needn't be so prolonged and intrusive. A team of scientists has identified biomarkers in the saliva of children with the condition, potentially paving the way for earlier, and more reliable, diagnoses.

The scientists from Clarkson University and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh studied the saliva of six children with autism, alongside six children without, all aged between six and 16. Using a technique known as mass spectrometry, the team examined the protein levels in the saliva of each subject, observing notable differences between the two groups.

"We found nine proteins that were significantly elevated in the saliva of the people with autism and three that were lower or even absent," says Alisa G. Woods, a researcher at both Clarkson University and the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Neurobehavioral Health and one of the researchers leading the study. "This is the first study to identify these changes in saliva, which is a relatively easy biofluid to obtain for clinical use or research."

While still in its very early stages, the research offers hope that a simpler diagnostic test may one day become available. Back in 2010, similarly minded scientists developed a biological test claimed to be capable of diagnosing autism in 10 minutes, though said at the time the solution was still a ways off landing in clinics. With regard to saliva testing, given the small size of the study, the researchers say that carrying out more work with larger groups is the next logical step.

"We have found some interesting proteins that are different from children with autism compared with controls, and I think the next stage would be to increase the pool of samples to confirm those findings," says Armand Gatien Ngounou Wetie, doctoral candidate at Clarkson University and leader of the study.

The research paper can be read here.