Decreasing eye contact an early indicator of autism?

There is more evidence to show that eye tracking technology may contribute to an early diagnosis of autism.

Autism Speaks reports on a study by researchers from Atlanta’s Marcus Autism Center and Emory University which investigated eye contact by infants aged 2 to 6 months. A group of 110 infants took part in the study, in which eye-tracking technology measured the way that the infants responded to a video of a friendly person. The technology could trace where the infants were looking on the video screen.

The infants were tested at regular intervals up to the age of 24 months, by which point 13 of the infants had been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. These infants showed a gradual decrease in eye contact, while this had increased in the non-autistic infants. Significantly, both sets of infants started off with similar levels of eye contact. This aspect of social functioning appeared not to be absent at birth, but to have declined during the first two years. The most rapid decline in eye contact was seen in those infants who later had the most disabling level of autism.

These findings are significant in several ways. They add further evidence as to the effectiveness of eye tracking technology as a means of making an early diagnosis of autism. As shown by many studies, early intervention can be effective in helping children on the autistic spectrum.

Furthermore, the study authors speculate that…’the timing of decline highlights a narrow developmental window and reveals the early derailment of processes that would otherwise have a key role in canalizing typical social development…the observation of this decline in eye fixation—rather than outright absence—offers a promising opportunity for early intervention…’

The report in the journal Nature can be found here.

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