What if you could get a hint that your child might have autism from the very beginning, when they're still a baby? A new study suggests that a baby's gaze could signal autism. It's all about eye contact. Using eye-tracking technology, researchers found that babies who looked less at people's eyes were more likely to be diagnosed with autism by age 3. What's more, there may be a window of time when doctors can intervene. This difference in eye contact didn't show in newborns -- only after the babies were a few months old.
The team says that babies whose eye contact with others declined the most turned out to have the most severe autism. That's information that could help a lot of parents and kids. "Our ultimate goal," says researcher Dr. Warren R. Jones, "is to translate this discovery into a tool for early identification" of children with autism. But don't start obsessively watching your baby's gaze yet.
I can see where the results of this study are going to send us: Parents will become paranoid that their babies aren't making enough eye contact. In fact, I remember hearing that sometimes from other parents, long before this study. Dr. Jones says you're not, NOT!!! going to pick up those tell-tale differences just by observing your child. Neither is your pediatrician. "We don’t want to create concern in parents that if a child isn’t looking them in the eyes all the time, it’s a problem. It’s not. Children are looking all over the place." You would need the eye-tracking technology and expertise in autism to get an accurate picture anyway.
So how can parents use this information? Like so many other fascinating studies with huge potential, we don't. Instead, we wait. We wait while researchers conduct more studies with larger groups of babies.
Someday the hope is that tracking eye contact could become part of that battery of development tests pediatricians do during well-baby checkups. Then, if doctors pick up on something, they can do something -- they don't even know what yet. But we're a long way from that.
In the meantime, parents should keep doing what pediatricians always recommend: Engaging your babies as much as possible, talking with them, and looking them in the eyes.
Do you feel like you'll be more aware of your baby's eye contact more now, anyway?
Image via Alicia Munoz-Witt/Flickr