HealthDay News — Exceptional visual perception might be an early hallmark of autism, which could help predict a child will be diagnosed with the developmental disability, a new British study suggests.
Infants who more quickly perceived a mismatched symbol on a screen when they were 9 months old were more likely to receive an autism diagnosis by age 2, the researchers found.
Most autism research to date has focused on difficulties children have with social interactions, behavior and communication, such as poor eye contact, the authors noted in their study. Focusing on above-average perceptual skills is a new direction to research.
These findings, published in the journal Current Biology, might also help clinicians eventually make diagnoses earlier since most children cannot receive a full clinical assessment until they are 2 or 3 years old, said study co-author Rachael Bedford, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London.
For the experiment, the researchers presented 109 infants with a screen showing a circle of Xs along with either an O, S, V or + sign as part of the circle. Then they used eye-tracking technology to time how quickly the odd letter out drew the infants’ attention at 9 months of age.
The infants also underwent standard assessments for autism symptoms at 9 months, 15 months and 2 years. Of the full group, 82 were at high risk for autism because an older sibling had been diagnosed with it. The other 27 children were at low risk.
By the time they turned 2 years old, 20% of the at-risk children had been diagnosed with autism, and another 30% showed several increased symptoms of autism, the researchers said.
When the researchers compared the children’s speed at noticing the letter that did not match the Xs, they found that children who saw it the fastest at 9 months old had more autism symptoms at 15 months and 2 years old.
Gliga T, et al. Enhanced Visual Search in Infancy Predicts Emerging Autism Symptoms. Curr Biol. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.011