A new study using eye-tracking technology has shown children later diagnosed with autism are less likely to make eye contact as infants.
Researchers for the journal "Nature" tracked babies ranging in age from 2 month to 6 months in hopes of developing earlier treatment for autism.
During the study, infants were shown videos of women acting as caregivers. Researchers used eye-tracking technology and found the babies who didn't make eye contact were more likely to develop autism.
David Mandell, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the findings need to be confirmed but show promise for early intervention.
"The result from this study reflects very little overlap between the children who went on to develop typically and the children who went on to develop autism. So that if this study was replicated in the general population, it would suggest that eye gaze could be diagnostic in determining the presence of autism, and that is very unusual," said Mandell. "That's a new finding for this kind of research and a very exciting finding if it holds up."
Eric Berger, a general and developmental pediatrician in Philadelphia, said he looks for "social referencing signals" in infants at about 6 months. The study, he said, confirms what most practitioners already know.
"If you have a child who is not as naturally socially engaging, or has a weakness in social engagement ... if we intervene very, very early, then hopefully we're going to strengthen that ability," said Berger. "If we do not intervene ... those tracks grow deeper and deeper."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism diagnoses have increased from one in 150 children in 2002 to one in 88 in 2008. The study shows autism is present early in life, Mandell said, even though it's most often diagnosed around 15 months or later.