NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Researchers have made a major development in tracking autism.
As CBS 2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Wednesday, researchers from Emory University have found the earliest sign that a child is likely to develop autism through tracking a baby’s gaze.
The research focuses on when and how long a baby looks into other people’s eyes.
Anyone familiar with autism knows that lack of eye contact is a hallmark of the brain disorder, but measuring eye contact in very young babies is challenging, Gomez reported.
Now, researchers have worked out a way to follow babies’ gazes and predict which ones may go on to develop autism.
Parents know that babies don’t focus their eyes that well and have a limited attention span. But there is a difference in how babies who might develop autism look at people’s faces.
“Autistic kids compared to other kids will spend a lot more time looking at a person’s mouth, for example, rather than in their eyes, ” Dr. Dominick Auciello of the Child Mind Institute told Gomez.
Using eye-tracking technology similar to that used to train doctors in laparoscopic surgery, Emory University researchers have been able to watch and quantify a baby’s gaze between 2 and 6 months old.
They found that babies whose eye contact diminished over those early few months of age were far more likely to be diagnosed with autism by the time they turned 3.
While eye gaze studies have been done in autism before, this is the earliest behavioral sign for autism thus far reported, Gomez reported.
That could allow for very early intervention for these kids.
“The earlier you intervene, the more likely there is to be a benefit,” Dr. Auciello said. “That may be helpful to promote social interaction, eye contact, interest in social interaction.”
Auciello, an autism expert, said his big takeaway from the study is the possibility that intervention before the full-blown disease develops might be able to slow or even stop autism.
But he cautions that this eye gaze determination is not something parents can do at home.
The technology used was sophisticated and the difference in gazes is so subtle that parents or pediatricians wouldn’t be able to detect them, Gomez reported.
While the study is exciting, it was in a very small number of kids — just 36 autistic boys.
Experts say the results will have to be confirmed in much larger studies, but the possibility that such very early intervention could make a difference in autism is also likely to stimulate new research.
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