Infants frequently gaze at people's faces. It's as if they're fascinated and, perhaps, yearning for interaction with the people in their lives. Infants who don't exhibit this fondness for human faces, researchers say, may be exhibiting one of the first signs of autism.
With autism rates soaring over the last decade, researchers are seeking the earliest clues of the disorder. The sooner a child is diagnosed and begins treatment, experts say, the better the long-term outcome. In the September issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, leading autism researchers say they think infant gaze is among the first clues of social functioning. A hallmark characteristic of autism is an inability to socialize.
The researchers, from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and the University of Delaware, observed 25 6-month-old infants who were siblings of children with autism. (Siblings have a much higher risk of developing the disease.) They were compared with 25 infants from families with no history of autism. The infants were observed performing a task that measured their ability to learn and their level of social engagement with a caregiver.
They found that the infants in the low-risk group were more likely to have normal social gazing. They looked at their caregivers, became excited while playing and pointed to the toy. The high-risk siblings, however, spent less time looking at their caregivers and more time focused on the toy. The two groups did not differ, however, in how well they learned the game the caregiver was playing with them.
The study provides more evidence for early diagnosis, the lead author of the study, Rebecca Landa, said in a news release. The lack of interest in people's faces is "a subtle difference that could be easily overlooked by both parents and some professionals."