Eye Contact and Autism: An Early Marker?

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Any parent with a child with autism knows that eye contact is a key identifier of the condition.  Children with autism tend to give little to no eye contact to anyone.  The less eye contact, often the more severe the autism.  Well, a group of researchers from Yale University decided to test a theory regarding eye contact patterns in the early diagnosis of autism in children.  There findings are published in the journal Archives of Preferential Psychiatry.They took 15 children 2 years old with confirmed autism and showed them 10 videos with a person looking right into the camera and interacting as a care giver.  They also used 15 developmentally delayed but non-autistic children, and 36 children who were typically developing as the control.  These groups had their eye patterns traced to determine whether or not eye contact was being made, and to what degree.As expected, the children with autism focused less on the "caregiver's" eyes than the other children.  What was interesting is that they (the children with autism) focused instead on the mouth of the "caregiver".  But why should this even matter?  What does it mean, all this focus on eye contact?  Well, the context of the study focuses on the need for eye contact to interact socially with the world.  This same behavior has been seen in social animals, and this same phenomenon has been confirmed to happen with infants within the first week of life.  Generally infants will focus on the eyes of their caregiver, and even give preferential attention to their eyes.  The focus of this study was to prove that decreased eye contact in infants could be a conclusive method of identifying autism in children at a very early age.  This is great for researchers, because they can focus on genetic markers from children confirmed to have autism at an early age, and gives more credibility to the genetic focus of autism.  The next phase of this study would be a long one, focusing on infants with decreased eye contact to determine if they do indeed grow to have autism.  But there is another benefit, if this becomes confirmed for infants:  parents will be able to educate themselves early on before their child gets too far behind, and help to retrain their neurons while still developing.  Quite honestly, if this study proves to be a marker with infants, parents will be better prepared to meet this challenge head on.