Eye Contact Could Be Early Autism Marker In Young Infants
November 7, 2013

Eye Contact Could Be Early Autism Marker In Young Infants

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Though autism typically isn’t diagnosed during the first 24 months of a child’s life, new research suggests that eye contact in young infants could be the earliest marker for the neural development disorder.

In research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and appearing in this week’s edition of the journal Nature, Dr. Warren Jones and Dr. Ami Klin of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta found that a steady decline in attention to other people’s eyes during the first two to six months of a baby’s life could be an early indicator of developing autism.

Children who are developing normally begin focusing on human faces during the first few hours after being born, and according to the study authors, those children begin learning social cues by focusing upon people’s eyes. On the other hand, autistic children do not possess the same level of interest in the eyes of other people – so much so that a lack of eye contact is listed as one of the diagnostic features of the developmental disorder.

“Autism isn't usually diagnosed until after age 2, when delays in a child's social behavior and language skills become apparent. This study shows that children exhibit clear signs of autism at a much younger age,” NIMH director Dr. Thomas R. Insel explained in a statement. “The sooner we are able to identify early markers for autism, the more effective our treatment interventions can be.”

Jones and Klin set out to discover how this eye contact avoidance phenomenon begins in autistic children by following infants from birth through the age of three. Each child was placed into two groups based on their risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The infants in the high-risk group had an older sibling already diagnosed with autism, while those in the low risk group did not.

Using special eye-tracking technology, the doctors measured each child’s eye movements as they watched video footage of a caregiver. They tested each child 10 times between the ages of two and 24 months of age, and determined the percentage of the time that each subject fixated on the eyes, mouth or body of the caregiver, as well as the non-human objects included in the footage.

“By age 3, some of the children, nearly all from the high risk group, had received a clinical diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder,” NIMH officials said. “The researchers then reviewed the eye-tracking data to determine what factors differed between those children who received an autism diagnosis and those who did not.”

“In infants later diagnosed with autism, we see a steady decline in how much they look at mom's eyes,” Jones added.

The decline in eye-contact started between two and six months and continued throughout the rest of the study, the investigators said, and by 24 months of age, children who went on to be diagnosed with autism focused on the caregiver’s eyes only approximately half as long as the non-autistic children.

Jones and Klin said that they were somewhat surprised by the decline in attention to other peoples’ eyes. While experts had long theorized that social behaviors are completely absent in autistic children, this new study suggests that such abilities remain intact shortly after birth. If medical professionals can use this knowledge to help identify young infants at risk of developing the condition, they might be able to intervene and keep the child’s social development from becoming derailed.

“This insight, the preservation of some early eye-looking, is important. 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,” Jones said.

He and Klin will now attempt to use their discovery to develop a useable tool for doctors and medical professionals. They have already started expanding their study by “enrolling many more babies and their families into related long-term studies,” the NIMH said. “They also plan to examine additional markers for autism in infancy in order to give clinicians more tools for the early identification and treatment of autism.”