Early signs of autism and the infant’s gaze

A recent study, reported in Nature, has shown declining eye contact from as young as two months in infants who were later diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. This has important implications for early diagnosis and treatment.

The study followed 110 infants from birth, around half of whom were in a high risk group, having an older sibling who had already been diagnosed with ASD. The researchers tracked the infants’ eye movements when shown videos of their caregiver. EEG readings were also taken to assess the associated brain activity.

Those infants who were later diagnosed with ASD tended to show a marked decline in the attention that they gave to their caregiver’s eyes, so that by the age of 24 months they looked at their caregiver’s eyes for half the time of infants not given that diagnosis. The decline tended to start between the ages of two and six months.

The researchers noted their surprise that the difference in eye contact only seemed to emerge after the two-month point. This “contradicts prior hypotheses of a congenital absence of social adaptive orientation and suggests instead that some social adaptive behaviors may initially be intact in newborns later diagnosed with ASD”.

These are important findings which, if replicated, could eventually lead to tools with which to make earlier diagnosis. Early diagnosis is vital for effective treatment. The findings also show that at least some infants who go on to be diagnosed with ASD are born with a capacity for social engagement which then declines. More effective treatments could be developed if the causes for this subsequent decline are discovered.

An abstract of the Nature article is available here. Medscape carries a discussion of the study. (Free log in required)

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