mannequin heads  in profileAt what age can the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) be observed in children? According to a new study utilizing eye-tracking technology, ASD tendencies are detectable in six-month-old infants. The study from Yale University School of Medicine indicates that it may be possible to identify ASD at a much younger age.

The researchers sought to discover how six-month-old babies respond to faces. They showed infants videos of still, smiling, and speaking faces, using eye-tracking equipment to record the location and duration of the infants’ gaze. The children were later assessed at the age of three and subsequently divided into three groups: children with ASD diagnosis, children with a developmental delay, and typically developing children.

They found that the children who were diagnosed with autism were the infants who displayed an unusual response pattern to the faces. Infants naturally focus on faces and voices, but the results show that children with ASD divert their gaze from a face when that face is speaking. Furthermore, the infants later diagnosed with autism looked at all faces less than the other children. They also focused less on key facial features like the mouth and nose when the face was speaking.

The results indicate that autism symptoms are observable in children as young as six months. Since children with ASD manifest social deficits at such a young age, it is likely that this compounds the problems of social development, altering the developmental trajectory during a critical period. More research is needed to examine whether this early social deficit may have a cumulative effect on social skills.

“These results suggest that the presence of speech disrupts typical attentional processing of faces in those infants later diagnosed with ASD. This is the first study to isolate an atypical response to speech as a specific characteristic in the first half year after birth that is associated with later emerging ASD,” stated Dr. Frederick Shic, lead researcher.

This research is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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