One of the most magical moments in a parent’s life is perhaps when their baby starts gazing back at them, showing signs of recognition and early socialization. But babies with autism have been found to show different brain responses when someone looks back at them or turns their gaze away from them.
Autism can normally be diagnosed beginning at age 2, since it is during this period that children’s social behaviors begin to emerge and can be observed. As such, determining the potential for developing autism at an earlier age has been very tricky.
A study looked at the brain scans of 54 babies as they reacted to photos of faces switching from those looking directly at them and away from them. The subjects included those who were predisposed to developing autism (i.e., those who have a sibling with autism) and those who had no family history of autism whatsoever. These babies were monitored from 5 months until three years of age.
According to past studies, a normal response would typically be characterized by eye contact with other people. Older children with autism have been observed to have problems maintaining eye contact, and had unusual brain readings when it came to activities involving eye contact.
The results revealed that a more severe type of autism is associated with the inability to hold eye contact. 17 among those diagnosed with autism in the coming years had different brain responses from the 50 who were not at risk for autism and who were also not diagnosed with the condition.
The researchers note, though, that it would not be wise to conclude that this is the case with all children diagnosed with autism, as not all babies whose brain activity veered from the normal turned out to have the condition as they grew up. The same goes for children whose brain activity was normal but were later on diagnosed with autism.
Said study author Mark Johnson of Birkbeck College from the University of London, “At this age, no behavioral markers of autism are yet evident, and so measurements of brain function may be a more sensitive indicator of risk.” Looking at brain functioning would need to be refined and used as support for other methods in order to be a reliable predictor of autism.
You may also want to read:
• January 26, 2012. Linda Thrasybule. “Early Autism Sign: Babies’ Brain Responses to Eye Contact” livescience.com
• January 27, 2012. “Brain Activity May Help Predict Autism Before Age 1: Study” gma.yahoo.com
• January 26, 2012. Kate Kelland. “Study finds early signs of autism in baby strains” timescolonist.com
Photography by Jun Pinzon