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Autistic Babies Reduce Eye Contact in Early Months

Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Babies later diagnosed with autism reduced their eye contact with people by 6 months of age, a finding that may lead to ways to identify the disorder earlier in life, researchers said.

Almost 60 babies who were thought to be at high risk of autism were examined in the study, as were 51 babies considered at low risk, according to the report released by the journal Nature. Later, 13 children were diagnosed with autism.

While a lack of eye contact has been a hallmark of autism since the disease was first described, it’s not known exactly when it begins to occur, wrote study authors Warren Jones and Ami Klin, both of Emory University in Atlanta. The report released yesterday suggests that while newborns don’t initially show any difference in looking directly at people’s eyes, changes occur from 2 months to 6 months of age. Babies who had the steepest declines in eye contact tended to have the most severe autism.

“If confirmed in larger samples, this would offer a remarkable opportunity,” the authors wrote. The findings may mean there’s a developmental window where autism may be treated or attenuated.

One in 50 U.S. children are diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March. Children with autism may be unresponsive to people, become indifferent to social activity and have communication difficulties.

Study Data

The study released yesterday examined 11 boys who were diagnosed with autism and compared them with 25 boys who showed typical development. Girls were excluded because only two were later diagnosed with the condition. The babies viewed as high risk of developing the condition came from families with an autistic sibling. The low-likelihood families had no autistic relatives.

Researchers tracked the eye movements of the infants 10 times from the ages of 2 months and 24 months as they watched videos of women. When the toddlers were 3, they were assessed for autism. While the data were from a small group and need to be replicated, other steps may include examining infants’ brains for changes in gene’s expression, as well as detailed examination of early behavior, the authors said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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