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Hallmark of autism shows up in infancy

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 5:39 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Babies later diagnosed with autism reduced their eye contact with people by 6 months of age, a finding that may lead to ways to identify the disorder earlier in life, researchers said.

Nearly 60 babies who were thought to be at high risk of autism were examined in the study, as were 51 babies considered at low risk, according to the report released on Wednesday by the journal Nature. Later, 13 children were diagnosed with autism.

While a lack of eye contact has been a hallmark of autism since the disease was first described, it's not known exactly when it begins to occur, wrote study authors Warren Jones and Ami Klin, both of Emory University in Atlanta.

The report suggests that while newborns don't initially show any difference in looking directly at people's eyes, changes occur from 2 months to 6 months of age. Babies who had the steepest declines in eye contact tended to have the most severe autism.

“If confirmed in larger samples, this would offer a remarkable opportunity,” they wrote. The findings may mean there's a developmental window where autism may be treated or attenuated.

One in 50 children are diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March. Children with autism may be unresponsive to people, become indifferent to social activity and have communication difficulties.

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