Autism Sign May Appear in First Months of Life
Eye contact starts declining at 8 weeks, finds study
For the study, the researchers enrolled 59 babies considered to be at high risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder because they had a sibling with autism. Another 51 babies were enrolled who were considered low-risk.
To see if they could pinpoint when lack of interest in other people's eyes begins, the research team used eye-tracking technology to measure the babies' focus when shown videos of caregivers engaged in normal behaviors.
The babies were shown the videos at 10 time points between 2 months and 2 years of age.
By age 3, just one child from the low-risk group was later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, compared to 12 youngsters in the high-risk group. Because just two of these children were female, the researchers limited their analysis to the 11 male children diagnosed with autism. They compared them to 25 typically developing children from the low-risk group.
The researchers noted that the decline in interest in other people's eyes began at 2 months and continued declining until 2 years.
One expert called the findings a significant advance.
"This was a very well-done, very revealing study documenting in a precise and systematic way that children who are later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders have demonstrable and progressive differences in visual regard in infancy. It's a breakthrough finding," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"Whether this might permit accurate and reliable diagnosis earlier is still very unclear. But if it does lead to earlier identification, it may lead to the development of earlier interventions," he said.
Jones pointed out that these deficits aren't something that parents would be able to see on their own. "This is not something a parent can see by just holding a baby. We collected many measurements over time," he explained.
"Parents shouldn't be concerned if their babies aren't looking at them 100 percent of the time, but if they do have persistent concerns, they should talk to their child's pediatrician," advised Jones.