A baby’s gaze could carry the earliest signs of autism suggest the findings of a new study.

According to experts, infants who show declining desire for eye contact within the first two and six months of their life were more likely to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) later.

This significant discovery could help pediatricians screen children for the developmental disorder and get them into earlier and more effective treatments.

“Autism isn’t usually diagnosed until after age 2, when delays in a child’s social behavior and language skills become apparent. This study shows that children exhibit clear signs of autism at a much younger age,” said Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Insitute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Details of the study
The focus of the study was to determine whether babies’ gaze may predict autism. Researchers from the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta enrolled 110 infants. The study involved 59 infants who had an autistic sibling and were deemed at high risk of developing the disorder. In addition, 51 infants served as controls classified as “low risk” because they did not have first, second or third-degree relatives with ASD.

Researchers used eye-tracking technology to monitor where the babies focused their gazes when they were shown “scenes of naturalistic caregiver interaction”. Data was collected 10 times over the course of the study at 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18 and 24 months of age.

For the purpose of the study, experts calculated the proportion of time each child fixated on the caregiver’s eyes, mouth, body (including neck, shoulders and hair) and other objects. By age three, researchers noted changes a couple of months after birth. They found kids later diagnosed with autism had paid less and less attention on the caregiver’s eyes as the study progressed than their typically developing counterparts.

Study author Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center stated, “First, these results reveal that there are measurable and identifiable differences present already before six months. And second, we observed declining eye fixation over time, rather than an outright absence. Both these factors have the potential to dramatically shift the possibilities for future strategies of early intervention.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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