Pregnant women who already have an autistic child are being sought for a study by the Autism Research Team at WA's Telethon Institute of Child Health Research.
The University of Western Australia's Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse and his group have found that autism may be associated with enlarged head circumference and exposure to increased levels of testosterone during prenatal life.
With one in every 100 people around the world affected by autism and the incidence increasing, researchers are working towards in utero detection and intervention that starts at birth.
"Autism is not usually picked up until a child is between two and three years of age, often when a child is not meeting language milestones," Associate Professor Whitehouse said.
"If we could detect autism much earlier, we could start intervention when the course of the brain development is much easier to alter. We're also hoping to provide extra training to child health nurses to help them identify warning-signs for autism at check-ups during the first year of life."
Associate Professor Whitehouse said autism occurred on a spectrum, with some children having severe social and communication impairment, often combined with an intellectual disability, and other children having milder difficulties that do not prevent them holding down a job or getting married. About 10 per cent of people with autism were "savants", with outstanding abilities in a particular area, most commonly maths.
Associate Professor Whitehouse's group is collaborating with scientists around the nation and internationally to try to find the cause and better treatments for the condition.
"While we can't rule out the fact that there might be something in the environment that causes autism, we also know that the increased prevalence is partly because it's diagnosed more readily and because we know that it's a condition that varies in severity. We're diagnosing milder cases now."
The Telethon Institute of Child Health Research is an affiliate of UWA.
Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse (UWA School of Psychology (+61 8) 9489 7770
and Telethon Institute of Child Health Research)
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783