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New hope for autism as study shows eye gaze behaviour of babies can predict autism

The results could bring about new and early clinical diagnostic practises and therapeutic interventions in the future.

New research from Birkbeck has shown that infants who are at high risk of autism show differences in eye gaze behaviour at six months of age.

The study recruited infants at low risk and high risk for autism. At the 6-month and 14-month visits, the infants took part in a computer task where a face and objects appeared on a computer screen and an eye tracker monitored their gaze.

Lead researcher Dr Gillian Forrester, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, said: “The results of this study showed that the infants at 6 months who went on to receive a diagnosis of autism at the age of 3 years old, were slower at looking at faces on the left than low risk children who were typically developing at 3 years old.  

“Humans demonstrate a population-level left visual field bias for perceiving human faces and detecting emotional expressions, but these brain dominances can be weakened, absent or reversed in individuals with autism, likely contributing to reduced social and communication abilities that commonly accompany an autism diagnosis. 

“Associations between looking at faces at 6 months and language and motor ability at 14 months were also found, with infants who looked more frequently at faces on the left showing greater subsequent motor ability and those who looked more frequently at face on the right, poorer language ability.

“At present, autism is not generally clinically diagnosed before the age of 2 years. The results of this study are important as they show risk factors for autism can be identified early in an infant’s life, which could bring about new and early clinical diagnostic practises and therapeutic interventions. Future research needs to be conducted to establish whether these findings are specific to autism or if they could represent a more general cognitive disruption, related to a range of developmental disorders.”

This research was supported by the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS) funding consortium led by Autistica, Autism Speaks and a UK Medical Research Council Programme Grant to Mark Johnson, Associate Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development.

Founded in 1998, the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development is one of the world’s leading centres for studying the way in which babies and young children’s brains develop.  

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