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Could a New Test Detect Autism at Its Start?

New study detects autism earlier than ever
Photograph by Getty Images/Top Photo Group RF

The root cause of autism may still be unknown, but according to a new study, there may be a way doctors can pick up on its signs earlier than ever. And it all has to do with when and how long a baby looks into the eyes of others.

Scientists used eye-tracking technology on young children from birth to age 3, and learned that those who were diagnosed with autism by age 3 all had one thing in common: They looked less at other people's eyes as a baby. But surprisingly, they didn't show those behaviors straight away from birth—they started coming on after a few months of babyhood. In the case of kids who didn't develop autism, they actually looked into the eyes of others more over time.

So what does this all mean? Experts are thinking there's a window of time—between 2 and 6 months of age—that autism is developed; and their hope is that maybe the developmental disorder can be slowed or stopped all together, if they spot it early.

Unfortunately, these signs aren't something obvious enough for parents to pick up on; eye-tracking technology is needed to know for sure. Dr. Warren R. Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center, warns that he "doesn't want to create a concern in parents that if a child isn't looking them in the eyes all the time, it's a problem. It's not. Children are looking all over the place."

But make no mistake, the new findings are pretty groundbreaking. "This is a major leap forward," Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum told The New York Times. Zwaigenbaum is a pediatrician and autism researcher at the University of Alberta, but was not involved in the study. "Documenting that there is a developmental difference between 2 and 6 months is a major, major finding."

The study also found that babies whose eye contact took the biggest nosedive during that time went on to develop the most severe form of autism.

Still, more research is needed before conclusions are made. The study itself was small, but thorough, evaluating 110 children 10 times over the span of two years. Scientists had kids sit in front of televisions and watch images of "friendly women acting as playful caregivers." The eye-tracking technology was used to detect when and where they looked as the video played.

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