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Early tests for autism

By Judy Foreman
May 11, 2009
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Q. Is there any early way to tell if a toddler might have autism?

A. There is no standard test yet for autism, a brain development disorder in which children have impaired social interactions, difficulty communicating, and use repetitive words or actions. But new findings from researchers at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven hint at one possible way to identify autism earlier: track a child's eye movement.

If someone is talking to the child, and the child's attention is focused more on the speaker's mouth than the eyes, that may be an early sign of autism, researchers say.

Normal children focus on the eyes, and autistic toddlers, by failing to do so, "are missing rich social information," said psychologist Ami Klin, director of Yale's autism program.

"The mouth is the place where there is the greatest amount of audiovisual synchrony," he said, "which raises the hypothesis: What is the experience these children have when facing another human being?"

Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health - which partially funded the latest study, published online in the journal Nature - said in a statement that the research shows for the first time "what grabs the attention of toddlers" with autism spectrum disorders. Not only does this suggest potential diagnostic tests, he noted, but it may also suggest ways to re-direct visual attention in these children.

Usually, children with autism are not diagnosed until they are 2 or 3, partly because their language skills are not developed sufficiently until then, said Dr. Christopher Walsh, a geneticist and neurologist at Children's Hospital who studies autism.

But there is great interest, he said, in diagnosing children earlier because intensive behavioral intervention done in the early years seems to help them later in life.

The challenge now, said Klin, is to see if doctors can tell soon after birth if a child is at risk for autism. By using the quantitative methods from the new research, he said, hopefully "we will be able to do so, even with children at only a few months of life."

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.