The New York Times:
When and how long a baby looks at other people’s eyes offers the earliest behavioral sign to date of whether a child is likely to develop autism, scientists are reporting.
In a study published Wednesday, researchers using eye-tracking technology found that children who were found to have autism at age 3 looked less at people’s eyes when they were babies than children who did not develop autism. But contrary to what the researchers expected, the difference was not apparent at birth. It emerged in the next few months and autism experts said that might suggest a window during which the progression toward autism can be halted or slowed.
The study, published online in the journal Nature, found that infants who later developed autism began spending less time looking at people’s eyes between 2 and 6 months of age and paid less attention to eyes as they grew older. By contrast, babies who did not develop autism looked increasingly at people’s eyes until about 9 months old, and then kept their attention to eyes fairly constant into toddlerhood.
“It’s well done and very important,” said Dr. Geraldine Dawson, director of the Center for Autism Diagnosis and Treatment at Duke University. She said it was notable that “early on these babies look quite normal; this really gives us a clue to brain development.”
She said a possible explanation was that early in life, activities like looking at faces are essentially reflexes “controlled by lower cortical regions of the brain that are likely intact” in children with autism. But “as the brain develops, babies begin to use these behaviors in a more intentional way. They can look at what they want to look at. We think that these higher cortical regions are the ones that are not working the same” as in typical children.
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