According to researchers, autism can be identified in babies by using technology to track their eye movements beginning at two months of age, which makes this the earliest signs to ever be observed of this developmental disorder.
New Research Discoveries
Researchers have discovered that children who are later diagnosed with autism tend to look less often at the eyes of other people than children who never develop the disorder. These differences become noticeable between two and twenty-four months of age. This discovery has been hailed as a significant development in autism research because it could provide an opportunity for a child to receive earlier intervention that could lead to better future outcomes. Thosmas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health explains that one of the biggest challenges in autism treatment is that it is not typically diagnosed until after the age of two when a child’s delayed social and language development becomes apparent. Yet, we know that the sooner early markers for autism are identified, the more effective treatment interventions tend to be.
This new information comes for a recent study reported in the journal, Nature that followed the development of 110 children from birth to two years old. Out of these children, 59 were viewed as high-risk for developing autism because they had at least one sibling on the spectrum. The rest of the children were considered low-risk because they had no close relatives with autism in their immediate family.
Utilizing New Technology
Using eye-tracking technology, researchers assessed the children 10 separate times when they were between the ages of two months old and two years. After the information was collected, they then compared the data collected from children who were not diagnosed with autism to those included in the study who were later diagnosed as being on the spectrum
Ami Kliin, a director at the Marcus Autism Center located in Atlanta, explains that they found that infants who were later diagnosed with autism demonstrated a continuous decline in their attention to other people’s eyes that occurred from the age of 2 months to 24 months.
The study also found that differences between the babies later diagnosed with autism and those with not began at the ages of 2 and 6 months, yet they continued to be apparent as the children reached toddlerhood. At the age of two, a child with autism tended to focus on other people’s eyes about half the time when compared to children who were developing normally. The findings also revealed that the decline of eye contact a child exhibited was correlated to the severity of a child’s autism symptoms.
On an interesting note, researchers noticed that children who were diagnosed with autism had the right eye movements at birth, yet they began to decline as the child matured. This suggests that it might be possible to help children retain their social and language abilities with the right intervention.
Warren Jones from Emory University and the Marcus Autism Center was the study’s main author, and he explains that the insight into the ability to preserve a child’s early eye movements is essential because it could allow future interventions to be developed that could help to reduce many of the disabilities that are associated with and accompany autism. Jones also stressed that while these findings were exciting leads for researchers who can use them to find new approaches for early intervention strategies, it is important to remember that these differences in eye contact are so subtle that parents are unlikely to notice them.
He also wanted to include that parents should know that it is not something that can be seen without the help of technology, and it should not be a concern if a baby does not consistently make eye contact. The technology used in the study was highly specialized and capable of measuring tiny developmental differences that when viewed over time could show how an infant observed certain aspects of social interaction.
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