How early can autism be identified in children? Research from a collaboration between the Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine has found that, using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, autism can be detected in infants as young as two months. The researchers found that children who were later diagnosed with autism paid less attention to other people’s eyes. The results could provide a method of early diagnosis and intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The research team undertook a longitudinal study to assess how infants notice visual information. Infants were divided into groups based on whether they had a high risk for autism (where an older sibling had been diagnosed) or a low risk (where no family members had autism). They collected data from birth to age three regarding how the infants directed their visual attention. Once the children were old enough to be diagnosed with autism, the researchers revisited the data from the children’s infancy to search for meaningful patterns.

“We found a steady decline in attention to other people’s eyes from 2 until 24 months, in infants later diagnosed with autism,” said co-investigator Ami- Klin, Ph.D. and director of the Marcus Autism Center. Additionally, the children whose levels of eye contact decreased the fastest were the most disabled later on.

The findings have implications for both early detection and intervention of children with ASD. Eye-tracking could lead to a way to identify autism before six months of age. If children can be diagnosed early, they can receive treatment that builds on whatever level of eye-fixation they do have, before their attention diminishes further.

Finally, parents with infants should not fret if their child does not constantly make eye contact. Warren Jones, Ph.D., and lead study author explained, “Parents should not expect that this is something they could see without the aid of technology … We used very specialized technology to measure developmental differences, accruing over time, in the way that infants watched very specific scenes of social interaction.”

Learn more about how iLs works with autism on our autism page.

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