In a new study, researchers found that babies who have difficulty initiating a specific type of “joint attention” at 8 months are more likely to have more severe autism symptoms by the time they are old enough to be evaluated for the disorder.
This type of joint attention involved making eye contact with another person as a way to signal interest in sharing an experience. For example, a baby might look at his or her parent and then to a new toy or other object to show interest. Joint attention is an important developmental milestone that provides a foundation for communication and social interaction.
“These findings add to the growing evidence that autism starts very early in life – well before the first birthday,” comments developmental-behavioral pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “Researchers have found differences in brain structure, brain function, behaviors such as eye-gaze and, now, joint attention.” Not all children with these differences go on to have autism, Dr. Wang adds. “But these findings suggest that we need to continue examining early symptoms of autism and explore whether certain interventions can decrease the risk that these infants will go on to develop autism.”
Dr. Wang was not involved in the research, which Autism Speaks helped support. The study’s authors – Daniel Messinger and Devon Gangi of the University of Miami and Lisa Ibanez, of the University of Washington – are part of Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research (BSRC) Consortium. Their findings appear online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
The researchers found that 8-month-old babies who seldom made eye contact to signal interest were much more likely to go on to be diagnosed with autism by 30 months than were 8-month-olds who did initiate joint attention in this way. This difference held true among babies in families that already had an older sibling diagnosed with autism as well as babies in families not previously affected by the disorder.
The study also found that, as a group, the baby siblings of children diagnosed with autism were less likely than other babies to smile in anticipation of a social interaction. Earlier BSRC research determined that the younger siblings of children with autism are much more likely to develop the disorder (1 in 5) than are children in the general population (1 in 68). Even those baby siblings who don’t go on to develop autism have a high risk of developing some autism symptoms (1 in 3).
“This study is important because it helps refine what we know about possible signs and symptoms of autism before 12 months of age,” comments Alycia Halladay, Autism Speaks senior director for environmental and clinical sciences. “This is why we fund baby sibs research – to better identify babies who may benefit from earlier intervention.”
Dr. Halladay expresses hope that such findings will help “empower” parents to take their concerns about their babies’ development to their healthcare providers. “If you’re not seeing joint attention by 8 months, it may not be anything of concern, but it may be an early sign of autism or another developmental difficulty that can be addressed by early intervention.”
For more guidance on early signs of autism and developmental delays, see “Learn the Signs,” “Screen Your Child” and “Early Access to Care” on the Autism Speaks website. If you and/or your child’s physician see a need for further evaluation, you can request a free developmental assessment through your state department of health. Click here for a state-by-state directory.
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