Deficits in eye contact are characteristic of autism and are widely cited as a diagnostic feature. However, the early onset of these deficits is not known. Here Jones and Klin show that infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) exhibit mean decline in eye fixation from 2 to 6 months of age, a pattern not observed in infants who do not develop ASD.
These observations mark the earliest known indicators of social disability in infancy, but also falsify a prior hypothesis: in the first months of life, this basic mechanism of social adaptive action—eye looking—is not immediately diminished in infants later diagnosed with ASD; instead, eye looking appears to begin at normative levels prior to decline.
The timing of decline follows a narrow developmental window and reveals early derailment of processes involved in typical social development. The data offer a possible window for early intervention and research exploration.
Jones W, Klin A. Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2-6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism. Nature [Epub ahead of print, Nov. 6, 2013 doi:10.1038/nature12715].