A baby's gaze could carry the first signs of autism, according to a new study that suggests the developmental disorder disrupts the desire for eye contact.
Atlanta researchers used eye-tracking technology to study how babies respond to social cues between birth and the age of 3, and found that infants later diagnosed with autism paid less attention to the eyes of others.
"These results reveal that there are measurable and identifiable differences present already before six months," study author Ami Klin, director of the Atlanta-based Marcus Autism Center, said in a statement adding that the findings "have the potential to dramatically shift the possibilities for future strategies of early intervention."
The study was published today in the journal Nature.
Autism is currently diagnosed based on careful observation of a child's behavior, social skills and ability to communicate. But researchers have long been looking for subtler signs with hopes of intervening sooner.
"By following these babies from birth, and intensively within the first six months, we were able to collect large amounts of data long before overt symptoms are typically seen," study lead author Warren Jones, director of research for the Marcus Autism Center, said in a statement.
But Jones cautioned that parents should not go looking for such subtle signs or be discouraged if their babies sometimes avoid eye contact.
"We used very specialized technology to measure developmental differences, accruing over time, in the way that infants watched very specific scenes of social interaction," he said. "To be sure, parents should not expect that this is something they could see without the aid of technology."
On top of raising the possibility of earlier detection, the study could hint at subtle interactions between the complex genetics of autism, brain development and eye gaze, according to Jones.
"Our next step will be to expand these studies with more children, and to combine our eye-tracking measures with measures of gene expression and brain growth," he said.