Could a baby’s lack of eye contact alert doctors to potential problems in the future?
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a group of neurodevelopment disorders that characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
One of the hallmark features of ASDs is impaired social interactions such as not making eye contact and not responding to a name. There are screening tools to help parents and doctors to determine if a child may have autism, but this tool is best used for children between the ages of 16 months and 30 months. However, the earlier a child is diagnosed, the sooner doctors can implement interventions – what can we do to start interventions sooner? In a new study, researchers have discovered the earliest signs of autism in infants.
Autism: Your First Clues
In the study published in the journal, Nature, researchers discovered that the first signs of autism maybe present as early as the first month of life. Researchers at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta followed 110 children from birth to the age of three. Fifty-nine of these babies were considered high risk for having autism because they had a sibling with autism; the other 51 babies were considered low risk, as they didn’t have any family with autism.
Researchers showed babies at two, three, four, five, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, and twenty-four months of age a video that showed an actress playing the role of a caregiver. All babies watched the same video each time and researchers watched the babies’ responses to the video. Researchers were able to measure what was different about the reactions to the video in babies who on track for normal development and compare them to those babies who were later diagnosed with ASD.
Researches studied the amount of time the babies spent looking at the caregiver’s eyes, as lack of eye contact is one of the first signs of ASD. Doctor Warren Jones, lead author told CNN, “Basically from birth, (all) babies will look more at the eye part of faces, but at about four to six weeks, the attention to eyes decreases, then in typical babies picks up again at two months. In the first six months of life we’re seeing a decline in the amount of looking at other people’s eyes in children who later are diagnosed with autism.”
These findings suggest that perhaps there are two phases of development in babies; the first, where making eye contact is a reflex behavior, and a possible second phase of development. The second phase may depend on a different part of the brain and different genes that are responsible for social interaction. Dr. Warren reports that this potential second phase is where children with ASD differ from children without ASD.
Autism Spectrum Disorders: Prevalence
Autism rates have continued to increase over the years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 1 in 88 children receive a diagnosis of ASD. No one knows for certain what causes ASD, but experts agree that environmental factors as well as genetic factors all play a role in the development of these disorders. According to the CDC, children who are born to older parents are more likely to have ASD, and there is a small percentage of babies who were born prematurely or low-birth weight that are at a greater risk for ASD.
Early Diagnosis of Autism
The findings from this new study provide clues that could potentially allow for an earlier diagnosis. The Academy of Pediatrics recommend that every child be screened for ASD at 18 months and again at 24 months. While there isn’t a cure or treatment for ASD, there are behavioral and educational therapies, as well as medication that can help. And the sooner a diagnosis is made, the sooner therapies can begin to help develop language and social skills.
Autism Speaks. Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers. Accessed November 7, 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorders. (2013). Accessed November 7, 2013.
CNN News. Study: Signs of autism may show up as early as first month. (2013). Accessed November 7, 2013.
Jones, W. and Klin, A. Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2–6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism. (2013). Nature. Accessed November 7, 2013.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Autism Fact Sheet. (2013). Accessed November 7, 2013.