Autism May Be Detected Earlier: Studying A Child’s Eye Contact


Researchers are studying how lack of eye contact and smiles can indicate a young child’s risk for developing ASD.

Although autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically diagnosed when a child is 2 years of age or older, recent research states that autism may be detected in babies younger than a year old.

A study from the University of Miami analyzed how babies interact with others, particularly eye contact and receptive smiles. This study targeted the relationship of ASD symptoms typically found later in childhood, with that of joint attention, an early form of communication that develops as a baby approaches one year of age. Previous research has shown that low levels of initiating joint attention are often linked to autism symptoms in high-risk children (such as children with an autistic sibling).

This new study focused on seeing if a child could initiate in joint attention with a positive affective component, meaning that they could respond to another with eye contact and a smile. Dr. Devon Gangi, lead author of the study, states, “The ability to coordinate attention with another person without a smile, without an emotional component, seems to be particularly important for high-risk siblings in the development of ASD symptoms.” He continues, “The detection of markers associated with autism early in life, before a child can be diagnosed with autism, is important to help identify children at the greatest need for early interventions.”

According to their research, babies that had less joint attention and did not smile were more likely to have elevated ASD symptoms by the time they reached 30 months. In addition, children that were at high risk for autism had lower levels of anticipatory smiles than children who were not at risk for ASD. Furthermore, researchers have reason to believe that joint attention impairments are one of the major deficits of ASD.

Daniel Messinger, professor of psychology and principal investigator of the study states, “High-risk siblings seem to have particular difficulty in sharing their preexisting positive affect with another person, which is what happens during an anticipatory smile”. He continues, “This difficulty may be indicative of a broader deficit autism trait among most high-risk siblings.”

This study is just one of many that is being conducted to help diagnose autistic children as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is always best for the child, as it allows parents and caregivers to provide the child with the therapy and services that fit their individual needs. Early intervention is critical, as it enables the child to receive the best care that will enable them to live fulfilling and happy lives.

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