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I’ve been reading news reports that it might be possible to detect autism by watching how much a 1-year-old focuses on a speaker’s mouth. Is this true?

January 27, 2012 4 comments

This week’s “Got Questions?” answer is from Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.

In recent days, you may have read media stories about research showing that typically developing babies tend to switch from eye gazing to lip reading when first learning to talk, but then switch back to focusing primarily on a speaker’s eyes by 12 months. The research report appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In reporting their results, developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz and doctoral student Amy Hansen-Tift, of Florida Atlantic University, suggest that this shift in focus may be different for infants who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or are at risk for developing it. Taking this idea a step further, they propose that paying attention to how babies shift their focus during their first year of life might help identify infants at risk for ASD – perhaps before other obvious symptoms emerge. To back their idea, they cite previous research suggesting that 2-year-olds with autism tend to look mostly at the mouths of those speaking to them, while typically developing 2-year-olds focus mostly on eyes.

It’s an intuitively appealing idea. But in truth, past studies have not consistently supported this notion that children with ASD focus less on eyes and more on mouths.

It is true that children with autism tend to pay less attention to social actions such as expressions. However, it’s possible that children with autism, like typical children, show a similar pattern of paying more attention to the mouth when they are learning language.

Given that language delays are common among children with autism, one would predict that this language-acquisition period might be prolonged. In addition one would expect that mouth-versus-eyes gaze patterns would vary among children with ASD depending on each child’s level of language skill.

Fortunately, while we don’t yet know whether eye gaze is a reliable predictor of ASD, research solidly supports the usefulness of other signs for screening toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children receive autism screening at 18 and 24 months of age. One of the AAP’s recommended screening tools is the Modified Checklist for Toddlers, or M-CHAT, which you can access on our website, here. Please also see our Learn the Signs resource page.

Meanwhile, Autism Speaks continues to fund a wealth of research on early screening and diagnosis because evidence suggests that early intervention improves outcomes. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks studies here. This research – like all the resources Autism Speaks develops and offers – is made possible by our families and supporters. Thank you for your support.

For more research news and perspective, please visit our science page.

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