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Eye contact issues could be early sign of autism in infants

An interesting new study into early signs of autism suggests that diagnosing the condition in young children could begin with the eyes. The study says that difficulty establishing or maintaining eye contact with others may be a sign that a child is on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, children whose eye contact was consistent as they grew into toddler age were less likely to be diagnosed with this form of disability.

This finding could lead to greater understanding of at what age the symptoms of autism emerge. This could lead to improved therapies, possibly slowing or even stopping the condition.

Researchers studied 110 children whose ages ranged from 2 months to 2 years. One group of the children was considered at high risk for developing autism because they had a sibling with the disorder. The others were considered low-risk because none of their relatives had autism.

The experiment included having the children watch a video that simulated having the child play with a friendly adult woman. As the kids watched, technology tracked their eye movements, allowing researchers to measure how much time they spent looking at the woman’s eyes, mouth and body, compared with other objects in the background. The experiment was repeated 10 times per child.

Researchers later winnowed the study down to 36 boys, perhaps because they seemed to be at especially high risk for autism based on their lack of eye contact with the image of the woman. Once the children turned 3, they were examined for possible signs of autism. Of the 36 boys, 11 were diagnosed with the condition.

Why poor eye contact may be an early sign of autism is still a question. One autism specialist theorized that eye contact is controlled early in life by a part of the brain that is not affected by autism. But as we age, another part of the brain takes over that function, possibly making is difficult for people with autism.

Source: Bend Bulletin, “Baby’s gaze may be a sign of autism later,” Pam Belluck, Nov. 7, 2013

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