Researchers using eye tracking to study the development of autism have identified an early window of time during which some babies – who appear to be headed toward autism – alter course toward more-typical social engagement.
If confirmed, the findings might indicate a crucial period of infant development when early intervention might best foster resilience from autism.
Researchers Warren Jones and Ami Klin, of Atlanta’s Marcus Autism Center, presented their findings today at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). The Marcus Center is affiliated with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University.
Follow our daily coverage of IMFAR 2014 here.
Drs. Jones and Klin are also part of Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium. Its investigators study the infant siblings of children already diagnosed with autism because the disorder tends to run in families. Around 1 in 5 “baby sibs” develops autism. Another 1 in 5 develops some autism symptoms but not the full condition.
In previous research, Drs. Jones and Klin used sophisticated eye-tracking technology to show that eye contact begins to decline between 2 and 6 months in babies who go on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In addition, they found that the degree of the decline across the first year predicted a child’s level of disability at ages 2 and 3. Eye contact is thought to be crucial for early social development and learning.
In their new study, the researchers focused on the eye contact of baby siblings who did not go on to develop autism. One subset of these children followed a wholly typical course of development – with eye contact increasing steadily from 2 months onward.
Something “remarkable” happens
However something unexpected occurred in another group of 12 baby siblings. Between 2 months and 6 months, their levels of eye contact were decreasing – just like the babies who would go on to develop autism. But by 18 months, they had undergone a “course correction,” with levels of eye contact clearly increasing. By 36 months, three of these babies showed wholly typical development. Their social behaviors were indistinguishable from 3 year olds in families unaffected by autism. Another nine had some behaviors typical of autism, but too few to warrant an autism diagnosis.
What’s more, when the researchers looked back across the 12 babies’ earlier eye-contact levels, they discovered the subtle beginnings of their course correction around 9 months of age. At that point, their eye contact levels – while still declining – were not doing so as quickly or as steeply as those of the babies who would go on to develop autism.
“Something remarkable appears to have happened with this group,” says Dr. Klin. “Their early eye-fixation growth curves were virtually identical to the babies who did go on to have autism, except that their curves clearly changed – like a course correction – to where we see a clear increase in eye fixation.”
“These results suggest a period of malleability,” adds Dr. Jones. “If so, this early period of plasticity might be capitalized upon for early treatment and intervention with the goal of fostering such a course correction in a larger number of children at risk for autism.”
The researchers caution that their findings are preliminary. To date, their eye-tracking study has evaluated just 41 high-risk baby siblings.
Comments Paul Wang, Autism Speaks’ head of medical research: “While this research describes an overall pattern that won’t apply to every individual, I’m hopeful that further research can help us understand what might be going on during this crucial window and how we can best foster development and the best possible outcomes.”
Watch Dr. Warren Jones discuss the study at the IMFAR opening press conference below.