A new study has found that 6-month-old infants who are later diagnosed with autism not only look at faces less often than other infants, but will divert their gaze from the face of someone who is speaking.
“These results suggest that the presence of speech disrupts typical attentional processing of faces in those infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” said Dr. Frederick Shic from the Yale University School of Medicine. “This is the first study to isolate an atypical response to speech as a specific characteristic in the first half year after birth that is associated with later emerging ASD.”
“The findings indicate that infants who later develop ASD have difficulty maintaining attention to relevant social information as early as 6 months of age,” he said. “This could reduce the quality of their social interactions with others and, consequently, the trajectory of their social development,” he added.
For their study, Shic and his colleagues used eye-tracking, which involves advanced video monitoring and special software that tracks and “maps” exactly where the eyes were focused and for how long, while the infants looked at videos of a variety of faces. Some of the faces were still, some were smiling, and some were speaking.
The infants were later assessed at 3 years of age and divided into groups based on a diagnosis of ASD, other developmental delays, or typical development.
The researchers found that infants who later developed ASD not only looked at all faces less than other infants, but when shown a face that was speaking, looked away from key features such as the eyes and mouth.
“While autism typically can’t be diagnosed until at least 2 years of age, this study — along with others — confirm that abnormalities in behavior and attention can be detected as early as 6 months of age,” the researchers conclude.
The study was published in Biological Psychiatry.
Source: Biological Psychiatry