Infants who make less eye contact between the ages of 2 months and 6 months could be demonstrating early signs of autism, according to a study published Wednesday. Researchers found that babies in that age range who made less eye contact than other infants showed declining attention to adults' eyes over time and were more likely to be diagnosed with autism later.
In their study of 110 infants using eye-tracking equipment, researchers at Marcus Autism Center, were expecting to detect autism as early as birth, but instead found no difference in eye contact among the youngest infants. Following the children until the age of 3, researchers began to notice a change a couple of months after birth.
"We found a steady decline in attention to other people's eyes, from two until 24 months, in infants later diagnosed with autism," co-investigator and director of Marcus Autism Center, Ami Klin said, according to a press release. Children without the disorder did not lose attention on eye contact.
A diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid and stable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The new eye-contact study could enable early detection and intervention.
"First, these results reveal that there are measurable and identifiable differences present already before six months," Klin said. "And second, we observed declining eye fixation over time, rather than an outright absence. Both these factors have the potential to dramatically shift the possibilities for future strategies of early intervention."
Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Insitute of Mental Health, said in a statement, that "the sooner we are able to identify early markers for autism, the more effective our treatment interventions can be."
Autism has been on the rise in recent years. In 2000, the CDC found that one in every 150 children had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The most recent report says one in every 88 children now has an ASD.
Warren Jones, the lead author on the study, warned parents that they would not be able to detect the eye-contact distinction alone.
"(Parents) shouldn't be concerned if an infant doesn't happen to look at their eyes at every moment," Jones said in the release. "We used very specialized technology to measure developmental differences, accruing over time, in the way that infants watched very specific scenes of social interaction."