Autism and eye contact: Baby research yields surprise, hope

Print Friendly and PDF By: Andy Miller Published: May 15, 2014

Baby

How long a baby looks into people’s eyes provides an early sign of whether the child will probably develop autism, research has shown.

Infants who later developed autism began spending less time gazing into people’s eyes between 2 and 6 months of age, according to a study by the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta.

But building off this research, a new Marcus Center analysis found that some babies with declining eye fixation undergo a “course correction” at 18 months. They show an increase in gazing — and don’t develop autism.

This phenomenon, the authors say, could mean there’s a “window of opportunity” for early treatment and intervention, and it may be a feasible goal to foster such “course corrections” in a larger number of children at greater genetic risk for autism.

Their findings were presented at the world’s largest autism research conference, the International Meeting For Autism Research (IMFAR), taking place in Atlanta this week.

More than 1,700 researchers, delegates, autism specialists and students are gathering to exchange the latest scientific findings and stimulate research into the nature, causes and treatments for autism.

One in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 30 percent increase from 1 in 88 two years ago, according to a March report by the CDC. Georgia has a slightly higher autism rate than the national average, which may reflect the better services and awareness in the state.

The disorder is characterized by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Warren Jones

Warren Jones

There is no known cure for autism. But Autism Speaks, a national autism science and advocacy organization, says nearly half of autistic children who receive early intervention with applied behavioral therapy will recover “typical function” and another 40 percent will improve significantly.

Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center, and lead author of the new study, told GHN on Thursday that the children that showed a “course correction’’ actually began that change at 9 months old.

“Those infants found a way to learn about the social world,” making the change without treatment, Jones said.

But treatment could help babies who show greater vulnerability of developing autism, he said.

The average age of autism diagnosis is 4.5 to 5 years old. Jones said at some specialty clinics, diagnoses can be achieved at 18 to 24 months.

The Marcus Center, where more than 5,700 children received diagnostic and treatment services in 2013, currently has a treatment study of children 12 months old who have had early vulnerabilities identified.

“There has been an enormous increase in autism research,” Jones said. “We still have enormous amounts to learn.”

 

Do parents’ jobs matter?

 

A second study that garnered some interest at the conference is one that tracked the occupations of parents who have children with autism.

A researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston discovered that certain jobs may be linked to a higher rate of children placed on the autism spectrum.

Aisha Dickerson of the Houston center used data from two previous studies with 273 children ages 7 to 18 years.

In these cases, fathers of the children were six times more likely to work in health care and four times more likely to work in finance, after adjustment for demographic variables, the analysis found.

Dickerson said Thursday that she divided the occupations into technical (not people-oriented) and non-technical (jobs that are people-oriented, such as teaching). She said she accounted for socioeconomic status in the analysis.

These parents of children with autism, she said, “may have characteristic symptoms or behaviors similar to autism.”

David Mandell, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, when asked to comment about the research, expressed reservations about it. He said that among other things, the occupation categories appeared too broad.

Dickerson told GHN she began the analysis after learning that many scientists and engineers had children with autism.

But she emphasized that she does not want to imply in her study “that people in technical occupations will have an autistic child.”

“It’s an exploratory analysis,’’ Dickerson said.

 

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