Researchers have uncovered early signs of autism in infants using eye-tracking technology that monitors when and how long a baby looks into other people's eyes.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature
, suggests that babies who later develop autism exhibit decreased eye contact with people between 2 and 6 months of age. By contrast, babies who don't develop the behavioral spectrum disorder focus increasingly more and more on other people's eyes as they get older.
Using eye-tracking technology on 110 different babies (some who were considered high-risk for autism), researchers from both the Marcus Autism Center and Emory University showed them "scenes of naturalistic caregiver interaction" to see where exactly the infants focused their gazes.
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The subjects were tested 10 times over a three-year period. By the time they were 3 years old, 13 of the toddlers had been formally diagnosed with autism, according to the Los Angeles Times
. The children who had been diagnosed had displayed steadily decreasing eye contact from the two-month point on.
"Kids whose eye fixation falls off most rapidly are the ones who later on are the most socially disabled and show the most symptoms," Dr. Warren Jones, author of the study and director of research at the autism center, told the New York Times
. "These are the earliest known signs of social disability, and they are associated with outcome and with symptom severity. Our ultimate goal is to translate this discovery into a tool for early identification [of children with autism]."
Most cases of autism in children are diagnosed between 3 and 5 years of age, but the study suggests that screening — and even therapies — can start much sooner.
"It really does present an opportunity for seeing if we could do some preventative interventions," Dr. Sally Ozonoff, vice chairwoman for research in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute of the University of California, Davis, told the Times. "Maybe you could keep the child from heading into that decline, so it doesn’t turn into autism."
Autism diagnoses have increased over the last 10 years
, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, one child in every 88 was autistic compared to one in 150 in 2002.
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