Scientists have discovered that babies with autism struggle to make eye contact in the first few months of their life, which could help doctors detect the condition earlier.
They studied 59 babies who were at high risk of autism because they had siblings with the condition, and 51 babies who had a low risk.
They followed the subjects up until the age of three, when they could be formally assessed for autism, and found the babies who were later diagnosed with autism had diminished eye contact in their first few months.
“These are the earliest signs of autism that we’ve ever observed,” Dr Jones told BBC News.
Of the group, 11 boys and two girls were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and when the researchers studied the eye tracking data from infancy, they noticed a trend.
“In infants with autism, eye contact is declining already in the first six months of life,” Dr Jones said.
But he warned that it is not something parents would be able to detect, as it required high-tech cameras to pick up.
“If parents have concerns, they should talk to their paediatrician,” he said.
Professor Tony Atwood, an autism expert from the Minds And Hearts Clinic in Brisbane, told ninemsn that the research was very important for helping doctors diagnose autism earlier.
“The earlier we are at diagnosing it, the better we are at programs that help them in social situations,” he said.
“We can start working on experiences to try and improve neural connections within the parts of the brain involved in social understanding. We can use programs and activities to help a person define what is important in a face and decode what that means.”
But Professor Atwood emphasised that only specially trained paediatric doctors or sophisticated machinery could pick it up, and that babies without autism often avoided eye contact when they were overwhelmed by big crowds or tired.
“I don’t want parents to think that if their infant doesn’t look at them, that they might be autistic — that’s the risk,” he said.
“There are other markers of autism spectrum disorder, such as vocalisation and facial expressions, but this one is very important.”
The research is published in the journal Nature.