Patterns of eye contact in infants may indicate whether a child will develop autism, resulting in diagnoses as an infant rather than as a child, according to a recent study by Emory researchers.

In the study, published in academic journal Nature on Nov. 6, researchers used eye-tracking technology to measure how infants look at and respond to faces, bodies and objects. The researchers found that children later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) showed a decline in paying attention to other people’s eyes within the first six months of life, compared to children who were not later diagnosed with autism.

Warren Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and was lead author of the study with Ami Klin, chief of autism and related disorders at the Marcus Autism Center and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar at Emory. Jones said these results are the earliest signs of autism ever observed.

William Sharp, instructor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, said that the results of the study will allow for earlier diagnoses of autism, which could lead to earlier and more effective intervention.

“For most kids, autism isn’t being diagnosed until they’re five or six years old,” Sharp said. “If you’re waiting that long, you’re missing out on a host of critical periods early in infancy and childhood where you could be intervening. This will help close the gap and provide treatment in an effective manner.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 88 children were identified to have ASD in 2008. Jones said evidence-based therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis, which is a system of behavior modification designed to bring about positive change in behavior, can be effective interventions for children with autism. Such therapies, Jones said, can be very helpful in improving a child’s communication and daily living skills.

Jones said eye contact is a “fundamental building block of social development.”

He said the study found that infants whose eye contact declined most rapidly were also the ones who were most disabled later in life.

“Attention to other people’s eyes is an important part of infant development,” Jones said. “Babies look more at the eyes than at other parts of the face, and more at the face than other parts of the body.”

According to the study, deficits in eye contact have been characteristic of autism since the condition was initially described in 1943. Jones said these deficits are widely used as features to diagnose the condition. However, Jones said that the early onset of these features were unknown until the study.

Jones cautioned that parents should not expect to identify these patterns of eye contact themselves. He said that the signs that he and Klin observed are only visible with the aid of sophisticated technology, which requires multiple measurements through several months.

Jones said the next step of the study will involve conducting research on a much larger group of infants.

He hopes that in the future, the study will lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention for children with autism.

– By Harmeet Kaur 

Photo by Veronica Chua