Yale University researchers have determined the first signs of autism may appear as early as 6 months of age — as social attention deficits in infants.
The findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, may help doctors, parents, and healthcare providers identify children at risk of developing autism spectrum disorders early, speeding effective treatments that can greatly improve their ability to function later in life.
Lead researcher Katarzyna Chawarska, associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center, said 6-month-old infants later diagnosed with ASD showed early signs of ASD such as an impaired ability to respond to social cues and the activities of others.
"This study highlights the possibility of identifying certain features linked to visual attention that can be used for pinpointing infants at greatest risk for ASD in the first year of life," said Chawarska. "This could make earlier interventions and treatments possible."
For the study, Chawarska’s team showed a video to 67 infants at high risk for developing autism, and 50 low-risk infants, and monitored their responses.
The video depicted various social events, such as a woman making a sandwich, looking at toys, or speaking. At various points, an actress would look at the camera and try to engage the babies by saying "How are you, baby?" or "You are so cute!"
The results showed that infants later diagnosed with ASD tended to be less responsive to the social scenes and spent less time monitoring the woman's face in the video — both indications of social attention deficits that can be clues to autistic tendencies.
“This work is highly consequential for identifying new treatment targets and early intervention strategies," said Chawarska.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the National Institute of Mental Health.
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