Eye contact during early infancy may be a key to early identification of autism, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes of Health. Published online on November 6, 2013 in Nature, the study reveals the earliest sign of developing autism ever observed—a steady decline in attention to others' eyes within the first two to six months of life. "Autism isn't usually diagnosed until after age 2, when delays in a child's social behavior and language skills become apparent. This study shows that children exhibit clear signs of autism at a much younger age," said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the NIMH. "The sooner we are able to identify early markers for autism, the more effective our treatment interventions can be." Typically developing children begin to focus on human faces within the first few hours of life, and they learn to pick up social cues by paying special attention to other people's eyes. Children with autism, however, do not exhibit this sort of interest in eye-looking. In fact, a lack of eye contact is one of the diagnostic features of the disorder. To find out how this deficit in eye-looking emerges in children with autism, Warren Jones, Ph.D., and Ami Klin, Ph.D., 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 two groups, based on their risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder. Those in the high-risk group had an older sibling already diagnosed with autism; those in the low-risk group did not. Drs. Jones and Klin used eye-tracking equipment to measure each child's eye movements as they watched video scenes of a caregiver.
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