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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Autism Sign May Appear in First Months of Life

Eye contact starts declining at 8 weeks, finds study

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 6 (HealthDay News) -- At least one sign of autism may begin as early as 2 months of life, new research suggests.

The study of 110 babies found that infants later diagnosed with autism showed a decline in the amount of attention they paid to other people's eyes beginning at 2 months and continuing until 24 months.

"We found that signs of autism are measurable and observable within the first months of life," said study author Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"These are the earliest signs of autism ever observed," Jones said, noting they may be associated with symptom severity.

Children with autism have impaired communication and social skills and often exhibit repetitive behaviors. Symptoms may be mild, as in Asperger syndrome, or severe, as in full-blown autism. It's estimated that one in 88 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder.

Despite the observed decline in eye attention, the researchers said infants later diagnosed with autism did pay more attention to people's eyes than was expected.

"This insight, the preservation of some early eye-looking, is important because, in the future, if we were able to use similar technologies to identify early signs of social disability, we could then consider interventions to build on that early eye-looking and help reduce some of the associated disabilities that often accompany autism," said Jones.

Autism therapies work best when begun while the brain is still developing. "This early developmental window may be an opportunity to intervene that we didn't know we had before," Jones added.

The findings, released online Nov. 6 as a letter in the journal Nature, need to be confirmed in larger studies before they can lead to changes in clinical practice.

Deficits in eye contact are a key sign of autism spectrum disorders, according to background information in the study. But it wasn't clear when such deficits begin.

Currently, autism is often diagnosed using a scientifically validated checklist designed for youngsters between 16 months and 30 months old, according to Autism Speaks.

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