Researchers find evidence of early marker for autism

October 13, 2010 by Diane Kukich
Photo by Ambre Alexander

Most health care professionals agree that early intervention is critical for the nearly 1 in 100 children now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and repetitive behavior patterns.

However, early intervention requires early diagnosis, and most children are between three and six years old before they are diagnosed with ASD.

Now, a team of researchers that includes Cole Galloway, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware, has found what seems to be an early marker for ASD -- infrequent gazing at other people when unprompted.

Galloway is co-author on a paper, with Anjana Bhat and Rebecca Landa, reporting the findings of a study carried out at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Bhat earned her doctorate at Delaware under Galloway and went on to work as a postdoctoral research with Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger. The paper was published in The Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology.

The study involved 50 six-month-old infants, 25 who have siblings with autism and are therefore considered high risk, and 25 from the general population, considered low risk.

In the experimental setup, the infants were seated in a custom chair with an attached joystick within easy reach, a musical toy located to the right, and their caregivers on the left. The researchers evaluated how quickly the infants learned that the joystick activated the toy, as well as their level of social engagement with their caregivers.

They found that the babies exhibited similar levels of social gazing when their caregivers actively engaged them by pointing at the toy or expressing excitement. However, the high-risk group spent less time looking to their caregivers and more time fixated on the toy or the joystick when the caregiver did not initiate contact.

This could indicate a disruption in development related to “joint attention,” which is often a core deficit for children with autism.

“We saw that simple learning was occurring in all of the babies,” Galloway says. “The high-risk infants learned as quickly as their peers that something happened when they pulled the joystick.”

“But the fact that these babies looked at Mom only when prompted by her, and not spontaneously, was an important finding with implications for their future social development. Take time to watch a baby without engaging her, and you'll see an amazing array of behaviors. One of those is that babies purposefully direct their looking to gain information as well as to initiate and maintain communication with you. One of the hallmarks of making friends is that you have to initiate contact -- kids can't just sit back and wait for others to approach them. Babies who lack initiation of gaze may not be noticed if the adults in their lives don't notice.”

According to Bhat, a key lesson learned in the study is that context is critical. “We have to study infants using a variety of contexts if we really want to learn what is going on with them,” she says.

Bhat, who did her doctoral work through UD's interdisciplinary Biomechanics and Movement Science (BIOMS) graduate program, says that the training she received in Galloway's lab prepared her for the multi-systems view needed to study problems like .

“Everything is related,” she says, “and we have to look at visual, motor, attentional, and social development together if we want an accurate picture of what is happening with babies this young.”

The subtle nature of the marker demands that clinicians actually understand the baby, Galloway says. But if the gaze test proves to be an effective diagnostic tool, it opens the door for the early intervention that can make a difference for these children socially.

Landa points out, for example, that electronic toys, which children can enjoy and operate without social engagement, could be replaced by simple songs paired with easy, predictable gestures to promote language and social learning.

Explore further: New study shows half of children with autism can be accurately diagnosed at close to 1 year of age

Related Stories

Babies learn to ride robots at UD

November 7, 2007

Babies driving robots. It sounds like the theme of a cartoon series but it is actually the focus of important and innovative research being conducted at the University of Delaware that could have significant repercussions ...

Babies & Robots: Infant power mobility on display

February 4, 2009

Children with mobility issues, like cerebral palsy and spina bifida, can't explore the world like other babies, because they can't crawl or walk. Infant development emerges from the thousands of daily discoveries experienced ...

Robot Speaks the Language of Kids

August 5, 2010

( -- Researchers are studying whether a small robot with a big personality holds the potential to help children with autism.

Early exposure could prevent egg allergy in babies

October 4, 2010

( -- Parents who delay giving their babies allergenic foods could be doing more harm than good, with a new Australian study showing the rate of egg allergy significantly increases among toddlers who are introduced ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.