Brooke Ingersoll, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, found toddlers and preschoolers with autism who were taught imitation skills made more attempts to draw the examiner's attention to an object through gestures and eye contact -- a key area of deficit in autism.
Imitation is an important development skill that allows infants and young children to interact and learn from others. However, children with autism often show a lack of ability to imitate, Ingersoll said.
The researchers analyzed children with autism who were 27 months to 47 months old.
Autism is typically diagnosed between ages 2 and 3 but researchers are finding symptoms of autism disorders in children as young as 12 months, Ingersoll said.
"I think there's a lot of hope that if we can figure out the right behaviors early enough, and intervene early enough, we may be able to prevent the development of autism," Ingersoll said in a statement.
The findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.