Babies diagnosed later with autism reduced their eye contact with other people by 6 months of age, a finding that could lead to ways to identify the disorder earlier in life, researchers said.

Nearly 60 babies thought to be at high risk of autism were examined in the study, as were 51 considered at low risk, according to a study issued yesterday by the journal Nature. Later, 13 children were diagnosed with autism.

Lack of eye contact has been a hallmark of autism since the disease was first described, but it's not known when it begins to occur, wrote study authors Warren Jones and Ami Klin of Emory University in Atlanta. Their report suggests that while newborns don't initially show any difference in looking directly at people's eyes, changes occur from 2 months to 6 months of age. Babies who had the steepest declines in eye contact tended to have the most severe autism.

"If confirmed in larger samples, this would offer a remarkable opportunity," they wrote. It may mean there's a developmental window during which autism may be treated or attenuated.

-- Bloomberg News

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