My new granddaughter was seen by a doctor for her six-week check recently. As she lay on a table the doctor clicked his fingers and moved them slowly from her left to her right.
She followed his fingers with her eyes quite precisely. He turned to me and said with some surprise, “She’s tracking”. “Oh, yes” I said, “she’s been tracking for a week or so”.
“That’s good”, he said and I thought he was referring to my granddaughter’s ability to focus her eyes on something crossing her field of vision.
Well, he was, but he was also seeking assurance about something else. New research has shown that eye tracking, or lack of it, in babies as young as six months, is a clue to whether they will develop autism.
If we want to diagnose and treat autism early, we need to find new signs that may indicate a baby’s risk of developing the condition.
Typically, infants prefer to look at and scan faces from the first days of life. Not only do they prefer faces, but new studies suggest that they even prefer to look at a parent talking rather than non-human objects.
Eye movements, known as tracking, are a guide to learning, so developing newborns selectively stimulate the part of their brain relating to faces and social images from the moment of birth.
At a US autism centre, Dr Karen Pierce and her team are using eye tracking technology to discover if eye tracking patterns can be used as an early warning sign.
They believe that an infant’s choice of what to look at from the first days of life can signify if there are potential problems.
For instance, in one eye tracking study infants as young as 14 months, who eventually went on to be diagnosed with autism, preferred to look at films of geometric shapes rather than films of children dancing and doing yoga.
The reverse was true for 51 infants and toddlers who all, with one exception, preferred to look at people and faces.
In another recent eye tracking study, six month olds who later received an autism diagnosis looked less at the features of a face when the face was speaking.
Interestingly, looking at the mother’s mouth at six months is linked to better language development and larger vocabulary at two years.
Eye tracking can pick up autism early. The earliest sign of the condition could be not looking at faces and people in a baby’s first year.
It’s something simple to watch out for.