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Researchers have discovered that decline of infant eye contact during the first few months of life may be an early sign of autism.

A December 2013 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that infants at 2-6 months who demonstrated a steady decline in attention to others’ eyes are more likely to be diagnosed with autism at 3 years old.

Because autism is not typically diagnosed until at least 2 years old, when language and social delays are more obvious, this study shows that signs of autism can be exhibited during early infancy.

Researchers followed babies from birth to 3 years old. Divided into a high-risk or low-risk group, the infants looked at videos of a caregiver. Their eye movements were measured with specialized eye-tracking equipment to determine how often they focused on areas like the caregiver’s eyes and mouth, as well as those spaces in between. The children were tested at various intervals from 2 months to 2 years old.

The good news? Researchers emphasized that those children later determined to be autistic were born with normal levels of eye gazing and eye contact until 2 or 3 months of age, which means that there is a chance for early intervention.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder can be generalized descriptions of a complex disorder that begins with brain development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 American children is on the autism spectrum. Autism is four times more likely to affect boys than girls in the United States, with 1 out of 42 boys and 1 out of 189 girls being diagnosed as autistic.

So what do these study results mean for kids and their parents? If early signs of autism can be identified, then early intervention treatments are likely to be more effective. Hopefully, the child’s social disability would more quickly progress to social development.

The researchers have extended their investigations by enrolling more families into similar studies, and they plan to examine other signals of autism in infancy to potentially identify new methods of treatment.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, February 2019

Takeaways

  • A lack of infant eye contact during the first few months of life may reveal an early sign of autism.
  • Younger infants demonstrating a steady decline in attention to others’ eyes were later diagnosed with autism.
  • 1 in 59 American children is on the autism spectrum.
  • Autism affects boys more often than girls.

References

  1. Nature. Attention to eyes is present, but in decline in infants later diagnosed with autism.
  2. Autism Speaks. What is autism?
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism.

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