Lack of eye contact has always been one of the hallmarks of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, a recent study conducted by Warren Jones and Ami Klin of the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, found that infants whose gaze started to decline between 2 and 6 months of age were more likely to develop autism. According to Drs. Jones and Klin, this is potentially the first sign of the developmental disorder that could lead to earlier intervention.

In this study that was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM), babies who showed a steady decline of eye fixation and focused more on other parts of the face or body, had a higher level of social and communication impairment as a toddler. On the other hand, infants who developed more interest in their caregiver’s eyes and were able to hold their gaze were usually not later diagnosed with autism.

Of course, just because your baby isn’t staring you down doesn’t mean you should become immediately concerned. Babies are very interested in their surroundings and look all over the place. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five other red flags that may be early indicators of autism:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age

If you are concerned about your child’s developmental milestones, you should ask your pediatrician to do a “developmental screening.” Autism Spectrum Disorders are generally not diagnosed until a child is between 3 and 5 years of age; however, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening children between 18 and 24 months.

In the event ASD is suspected, you will need to start working as soon as possible with a team of professionals that may include a mental health professional, behavior and/or speech specialist, and a developmental pediatrician. As we’ve said before, the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome – for parents and child.

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