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Early New Warning Signs for Autism

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Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) might appear in an infant as young as 6 months, a Yale University School of Medicine study shows.

Already at this early stage, children who would eventually be diagnosed with autism are already paying less attention to people and their activities than typically developing babies, according to the research spearheaded by Katarzyna Chawarska, of the Yale Child Study Center.

"This study highlights the possibility of identifying certain features linked to visual attention that can be used for pinpointing infants at greatest risk for ASD in the first year of life," said Chawarska. "This could make earlier interventions and treatments possible."

Plus: Could My Baby Have Autism?

For the study, published in the latest issue of "Biological Psychiatry," Chawarska and her team studied 67 infants deemed at high risk for developing autism because they have a family member with the condition. They compared those infants at greater risk to the development of 50 low-risk babies.

All of the infants were shown a three-minute video depicting a woman engaging in several activities, such as making a sandwich or looking at toys. While making sandwiches, the actress occasionally looked at the camera and tried to engage the babies by making eye contact and saying "How are you, baby?" "You are so cute!" and "Did you see the tigers?"

Chawarska and the other researchers monitored how often the babies looked at the toys, the woman, her eyes and her mouth. Six-month-old infants later diagnosed with ASD looked less at the social scene, and when they did pay attention to the scene, they spent less time monitoring the woman's face, suggesting an early, subtle marker for autism risk.

The study authors conclude that these new findings are crucial for identifying new treatments and intervention strategies.