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According to the findings of the National Institute of Health, babies who develop autism begin making less eye contact from 2 months of age. This steady decline in eye contact may be an early indication of autism. (1)
A 2017 research report attributed the unconscious avoidance of eye contact in babies who are at a high risk of autism (family history of autism) to a disruption in a set of neurons associated with vision called the “magnocellular cells.” (2)
Read on to know more about what autism is and how a decline in eye contact can signal a higher risk of autism.
Autism: What Is It and Its Complications?
Researchers share that 9-month-old infants retain different information about a novel object depending on whether their experience occurred in a social context with eye contact or without eye contact. (3) This indicates how important eye contact is in the normal development of human beings. (4)
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a collection of neurological disabilities that hamper the normal development of the brain. This condition can significantly impair the patient’s social, communication, and learning skills.
It is also characterized by atypical, restricted, and repetitive behaviors. The symptoms and severity of the condition can vary from patient to patient, which is why it is called a “spectrum” disorder.
This condition affects nearly one in every 36 children across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Boys are four times more likely to develop ASD than girls. (5) If the diagnosis of autism is missed in childhood, it can be diagnosed in grown-up men and women.
Autistic people struggle to make friends, interact with others, and meet behavioral expectations in social settings such as at their school and workplace. They are also more prone to anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as compared to people without ASD. (6) The presence of all these indicators together in a child/person can alert healthcare providers to the possibility of autism.
Although there is no cure for ASD, it can be adequately managed through the correct interventions. Timely and appropriate treatment will help gradually improve the symptoms of ASD.
Research Studies Indicating That a Decline in Baby’s Eye Contact May Signal Autism Risk
Babies make eye contact with others from a very young age.
There is a lot of emphasis on the early detection and treatment of ASD. The sooner ASD is diagnosed and treatment started, the easier it will be to manage. For this reason, scientists are constantly looking for ways to catch the condition at even younger ages. (1)
Many studies have reported that a reduced looking time at people and faces is characteristic of young infants and toddlers with autism. In toddlers, altered looking patterns across facial parts such as the eyes and mouth have been found, along with a failure to orient to biological motion. (7)
Research has shown that babies who develop autism begin making less eye contact from 2 months of age. This decline in eye contact maybe an early indication of autism. (4)
A scientific study conducted in 2013 has reported the following findings: (4)
- A total of 110 infants aged between 2 months and 3 years were split into two groups depending on their risk for developing autism. The children included in the high-risk group had an elder sibling with autism or a family history of autism, while the children included in the other group had no such risk factors.
- The eye movement of all the children in both groups was monitored as they watched videos of congenial women acting as caregivers. The researchers recorded how long each child focused on the caregiver’s eyes, mouth, and body and other nonhuman aspects of the videos. The same test was conducted 10 different times between 2 and 24 months of age.
- Twelve of 59 children (20%) from the high-risk group and a single child from the low-risk group were diagnosed with autism by the age of 3 years.
- Both groups displayed almost the same eye-looking behavior at 2 months of age, but it started to diminish after that in babies who were subsequently diagnosed with autism. This shows that infants with autism may exhibit normal social engagement skills in the initial few months of life. This new finding goes against the previously held belief that children with autism are completely devoid of social behaviors right from birth.
- The study also found that children with autism looked at the caregiver’s eyes only half as much as those not diagnosed with autism, by the age of 2 years.
These findings may help improve the understanding of the development (age) of autism and the development of better screening methods for early detection of autism.
What Are the Symptoms Associated With ASD as Children Grow?
Kids with ASD usually exhibit some of these symptoms:
- Avoiding or failing to maintain prolonged eye contact
- Unresponsive to their own name even at 9 months of age
- Lack of facial expressions indicating normal emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise by 9 months of age
- Zero participation in basic-level interactive games by 12 months of age
- Not using gestures such as waving goodbye by 12 months of age
- Not sharing their interests with others by 15 months of age
- Inability to understand other people’s feelings and emotions by 2 years of age, such as not recognizing when others are in pain or upset
- Completely oblivious to other children and shows no interest in playing with them by 36 months of age
- Do not engage in pretend play such as copying the mannerisms of a teacher, cartoon, or superhero by 48 months of age
- No inclination toward singing, dancing, or acting for others by 60 months of age
- Repetitive movements such as hand flapping
- Strong emotions when unexpected changes occur
What Causes Autism?
A single cause cannot be pinpointed as the cause of autism. However, some of the possible factors that may contribute to the development of autism are:
- Genetics: Your child is probably at risk of developing autism if he has an autistic older sibling or somebody else in the family is afflicted with the disorder.
- Environmental: Exposure to certain environmental toxins such as traffic pollutants and pesticides can contribute to autism development.
- Age of the parents: Being born to older parents (mother’s age more than 35 years and father’s age more than 40) increases the risk of developing autism since the quality of the sperm and egg deteriorates with age.
- Certain medications taken during pregnancy: Medicines such as valproic acid and thalidomide when taken during pregnancy can increase the risk of developing autism in the child.
- Oxygen deprivation during birth: This can affect the development of certain areas of the brain, thereby increasing the risk of autism.
- Infection during pregnancy: Children born to women who had a severe infection during pregnancy, such as sepsis, flu, or pneumonia, show an increased risk of autism.
- Smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy: Children born to mothers who smoked or drank alcohol during pregnancy show an increased risk of autism since these activities affect the neural development of the unborn child.
- Increased screen time: A recent study published in April 2022 (8) revealed that a longer screen time at age 1 was associated with an increased risk of developing autism at age 3.
Can autism be treated?
Depending on the symptoms, a multipronged approach is usually effective in managing autism.
The interventions include speech therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition therapy (a casein-free and gluten-free diet is recommended), educational interventions, and training to develop social skills.
In short, it can be said that autism can be treated rather than cured.
What is the outlook for autistic children?
Although there is no cure for autism, early diagnosis and early interventions can have a very positive impact on the health of autistic children by improving the growing brain and nervous system.
What are myths regarding autism and ASD?
- Autism is the result of poor parenting, which is completely baseless.
- Vaccines cause ASD, which has no scientific legitimacy since no study to date has found a link between the two.
- People with ASD can spread it to others, which is false since ASD is not a contagious infection but a neurodevelopmental disorder that one is born with.
Keep a tab on your child’s developmental milestones at 9, 18, and 30 months. Look out for the following warning signs in particular: limited eye contact, lack of response to hearing their name, delayed speech, lack or loss of language, and difficulty in expressing emotion.
It is always a good choice to get your child screened for autism at 18 and 24 months of age.
Autism can be a challenge, but it can be effectively managed with timely treatment. Children with autism are different from others, but they are in no way lesser than others.
If you are not convinced, consider the likes of Emily Dickinson, Bill Gates, Newton, Mozart, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin. All of them are inspiring figures who achieved great things in their individual fields, but not many people know that they were all diagnosed with autism.
Any child with autism can grow up to be like them. Don’t let ASD keep your child from realizing their full potential. Just give them the right treatment and environment to flourish.