Unique brain wave patterns, spotted for the first time in autistic children, could help explain why they have so much trouble communicating, a new study suggests.

Using an imaging helmet that resembles a big salon hair dryer, researchers discovered what they believe are “signatures of autism” that show a delay in processing individual sounds.

That delay is only a fraction of a second, but when it’s for every sound, the lag time can cascade into a major obstacle in speaking and understanding people, the researchers said.

Imagine if it took a tiny bit longer than normal to understand each syllable. By the end of a whole sentence, you’d be pretty confused.

The study’s authors believe that’s what happens with autistic children, based on the brain wave patterns detected in school-age children in their study.

The preliminary results need to be confirmed in younger children, but the researchers hope this technique could be used to help diagnose autism in children as young as age 1. That’s at least a year earlier than usual, and it could mean behavior treatment much sooner.

Andrew Papanicolaou, director of the clinical neurosciences center at the University of Texas’s Houston campus, said the study makes a major contribution to autism research.

“It gives us a window through which we get a picture of some of the neurological conditions responsible for the peculiar behaviors in autism,” said Papanicolaou, who was not involved in the research.

Dr. James McPartland, a Yale University autism researcher who also wasn’t involved in the study, called the results “preliminary, with promise.” Whether the patterns found in the study exist in all autistic children is uncertain, but they’re worthy of more study, he said.

Finding biomarkers like the brain waves that could enable earlier diagnosis and treatment is the “holy grail” for autism scientists, McPartland said. Now, doctors typically diagnose autism through parents’ reports and by observing behaviors that often don’t emerge until at least age 2, he said.

The brain wave study used noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography, or MEG for short. It measures magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in brain nerve cells and records brain activity in real time.