In a study recently published in the online magazine Nature, researchers have indicated that an infant’s lack of eye contact may be a strong indicator of the development of autism.
Autism specialists have long connected the absence of eye contact with autism, but this new study shows that symptoms may be diagnosed much earlier in infancy.
In a typically developing child, the interest in gazing into another person’s eyes increases steadily until the infant reaches 9 months and continues into the toddler years. The recent study by Warren R. Jones and Ami Klin of Emory University found that for children who were diagnosed with autism by age 3, a declining interest in looking at people’s eyes starts between 2 and 6 months. Children with the most rapid decline in eye contact developed the most significant symptoms of autism later.
Rather than maintaining attention on eyes, where infants can learn expressions and language, young children with autism tend to grow in their attention to objects. These children miss valuable opportunities to learn social skills that will be useful for the rest of their lives.
The result of this study could be instrumental in treating autism, especially in Colorado, where Early Intervention services end at age 3. Past studies of brain development have already shown that the most critical years of impacting brain development are birth to 5 years old. Traditionally, most autism diagnoses occur between the ages of 3 and 5. This potentially misses several years of the best opportunities to influence the trajectory of autism progression.
If these early signs could eventually translate into earlier detection, intervention and treatment could start earlier in life. Studies are currently underway to develop behavioral treatment programs for children with autism as young as 1 year old.
Colorado has a couple of different programs to serve children with autism. The Early Intervention program for children birth to 3 can offer in-home therapeutic interventions for qualifying children. Children with a diagnosis of autism who are younger than 6 may also qualify for the Autism Waiver, which can support intensive behavioral therapies that have shown high success in reducing some symptoms of autism.
Parents who have concerns about their young child’s development should talk to their pediatrician. Medical causes of developmental delays should always be ruled out. Developmental screenings are part of routine well-check visits at all pediatricians’ offices in La Plata County and can detect initial indications of potential delays. When screenings identify concerns, a full evaluation should be performed to determine whether a significant delay is present.
Families of children age birth to 3 can contact Community Connections at 565-8389 for more information about eligibility for Early Intervention or the Autism Waiver (birth to 6). For children 3 and older, contact San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services at 247-3261 for a Child Find evaluation. Colorado also has specialized autism centers that can help diagnose and treat autism. Community Connections’ coordinators can help you locate these resources, as well.
Tara Kiene is director of case management with Community Connections Inc.