Autism clues have been detected in infants as young as six months of age according to a new study by Warren Jones and Ami Klin, of Emory University in Atlanta. Lack of eye contact is a recognized attribute of autism but when it begins to manifest in a child’s behavior has not been specifically determined. One in 50 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with some form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The study by Jones and Klin sought to use eye contact as a prime factor in predicting the likelihood of autism in early age infants. The researchers, in collaboration with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Marcus Autism Center, used eye tracking technology on 59 infants considered to be at high risk for autism and 51 who were considered low risk. High risk children had siblings with the disability. The children at low risk had no autism in any relatives.
The children’s eye contact data was collected 10 times from the age of two months through 24 months. The children watched videos of a caregiver while machines tracked their eye movements. The percentage of times the child gazed at eyes, mouth, body and various objects was recorded. The machine picks up very small eye movements of the type that would not be readily apparent to a child’s parents.
The children were then assessed for the disorder at three years old when autism is traditionally diagnosed. Thirteen of the children studied were found to fall within the autism spectrum which is a range of disorders that includes Asperger’s syndrome, Rett’s disorder and classic autism. The autism clues detected in infants found that the children within the spectrum had declining eye contact as early as the first six months of life. By the age of two years, autistic children looked at the caregiver’s eyes about half as long as those children without the disorder.
The study was funded by several foundations and institutes including the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, Marcus Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance. While the number of participants was small and the experiment needs to be replicated, the study indicates a possible path for early detection and intervention. Early developmental intervention is considered essential in order to help an autistic child reach his or her full potential.
Autism has seen a steady rise in the U.S. over the past decade and its cause is still a mystery. Some look to vaccines as the contributing factor and there has been heated debate over the issue with no clear outcome. Many believe that the rise of numbers in children who fall along the autism spectrum is simply due to awareness and education. If true, it would mean that children with some form of the disorder had gone undiagnosed until caregivers became informed about autism.
Autism clues such as eye movement detection in infants is a possible tool in combating the disorder. Autism manifests differently in each individual so finding methods of early detection that are universal is key.
By J.S. Brinkley