Signs of autism can be identified in the first few months of an infant's life by looking at the eye contact they make with the people around them.
Researchers at Emory University's School of Medicine used eye tracking technology to the way babies looked and responded to social cues. They found that infants who were later diagnosed with autism, showed low eye contact, which is a hallmark of autism.
"It tells us for the first time that it's possible to detect some signs of autism in the first months of life," said lead researcher Dr. Warren Jones. "These are the earliest signs of autism that we've ever observed."
The research followed 59 infants who had a high risk of autism because they had siblings with high susceptibility to life-long disability and contrasted them with 51 infants at low-risk. The researchers followed them to the age of three, which is when autism is formally diagnosed.
Thirteen of the infants were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and looking back at the eye-tracking data the doctors were shocked with what they found.
"In infants with autism, eye contact is declining already in the first six months of life," said Dr. Jones.
But he added this could be seen only with sophisticated technology and would not be visible to parents.
Caroline Hattersley, head of information and advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said the research was based on a very small sample size and can be conclusive if replicated on a larger scale.
"No two people with autism are the same, and so a holistic approach to diagnosis is required that takes into account all aspects of an individual's behavior. A more comprehensive approach allows all of a person's support needs to be identified," she said.