Children who later develop autism may show declines in eye contact within the first two to six months of life, a small study suggests.
In Wednesday's issue of the journal Nature, researchers in Atlanta said they found a steady decline in how much children later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder looked at their mom’s eyes.
By 24 months, the children later diagnosed with autism focused on the caregiver’s eyes only about half as long as did their typically developing counterparts.
"This decline in eye fixation — rather than outright absence — offers a promising opportunity for early intervention," the study's authors concluded.
The study included 59 babies considered to be at high risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder because they had a sibling diagnosed with it. Another 51 babies were enrolled who were considered low-risk because they had no relatives with autism spectrum disorder.
The findings need to be confirmed in larger samples and can't be observed with the naked eye, study authors Warren Jones and Ami Klin of the Marcus Autism Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta cautioned.
Jones and Klin used specialized eye-tracking equipment to measure each child's eye movements as they watched a video of a caregiver. The researchers calculated the percentage of time each child fixated on the caregiver’s eyes, mouth, and body, as well as objects.
Children were tested at 10 different times between two and 24 months of age.
The research could offer important neurological information on a disorder that is not well understood, said psychologist Isabel Smith, who specializes in autism diagnosis at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. Smith also cautioned that the study hasn't produced a reliable marker for diagnosis.
Jo-Lynn Fenton of Halifax has two sons on the autism spectrum. She's pleased researchers are looking for ways to identify early signs.
"The quality of that child's life is dependent on the intervention they receive and how early they receive it," Fenton said.
The next step for Jones and Klin is to develop a tool that can be used in clinics.
The research was funded by the Simons Foundation, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, Marcus Foundation, the Whitehead Foundation, and the Georgia Research Alliance.