PhotoA new study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that early signs of autism can be detected in infants as young as two months. This is hopeful news because the earlier the disorder can be detected, the greater the chance of finding and applying effective treatment options.

The warning sign in young infants is a lack of interest in making eye contact with their caregivers. As the NIH wrote in its press release:

"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."

Researchers from the Emory University School of Medicine and the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta ran the following test on children up to age three: the kids would watch videotapes of their caregivers (usually their mothers), while the researchers used eye-tracking equipment to monitor exactly where various children directed their gaze.

For children later diagnosed with autism, it turned out that when they were as young as two months old, they started losing interest in looking at their mothers’ eyes. Autism researchers find these results surprising because previous theories of autism postulated that autistic children are born lacking certain innate social skills (like the interest in making eye contact with others). Yet this study strongly suggests that pretty much all newborns have these social skills—except, for some still-unknown reason, children who grow up to be autistic start losing them, as early as two months after birth. 

Of course, discovering a disorder’s warning sign is not remotely the same thing as discovering a way to treat it, which is why the NIH ended its announcement by noting that the next step for the researchers is “to translate this finding into a viable tool for use in the clinic.”

To that end, the NIH is expanding the scope of its current autism study, and enrolling more babies and young children in long-term studies.

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