According to a new study published in the journal Nature, eye contact during infancy may be a marker of early identification of autism.

The study showed that a steady decline in attention to others’ eyes within the first 2–6 months of life may be the earliest sign of developing autism ever observed. Children with autism do not learn to pick up social cues by paying attention to other people’s eyes. This lack of eye contact is one of the diagnostic features of autism.

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Researchers Warren Jones, PhD, and Ami Klin PhD, of the Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine followed infants from birth to age 3. 

The infants were divided into groups based on their risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder. Infants in the high-risk group had an older sibling already diagnosed with autism, and those in the low-risk group did not. 

Eye-tracking equipment was used to measure each child’s eye movement as they watched video scenes of a caregiver. The percentage of time each child fixated on the caregiver’s eyes, mouth, and body, as well as the non-human spaces, were calculated.

Results showed that by age 3, some of the children had been clinically diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder; most  of whom were from the high-risk group. 

Researchers reviewed the eye-tracking data to determine what factors differed between those children who were diagnosed with autism and those were not. The drop in eye-looking began between 2 and 6 months and continued throughout the course of the study.

By 24 months, researchers found that children later diagnosed with autism focused on the caregiver’s eyes only about half as long as their typically developing counterparts. 

Study results suggest that social engagement skills are intact shortly after birth in children with autism although it had been long believed that social behaviors were completely absent in children with autism.

The study team has already started to extend this research by enrolling many more babies and their families into related long-term studies. This study has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes of Health.

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