Every time I write about autism and its causes, I get a bunch of emails. Some are from the “anti-vaccination” lobby, still touting the scientifically disproved idea that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or pertussis vaccines cause autism. It does not – despite the intimidating interest groups and websites dedicated to this quackery.
But a fascinating study in the journal Nature offers some insight as to when autism might start, and with that perhaps what we can do to take action to prevent it.
One key factor in autism is the lack of interest a young child has in looking into another person’s eyes. All of us have seen that typical 6-month-old infant who stares into your eyes continuously without blinking. It’s a normal focus that seriously autistic kids do not have. Autistic kids spend much less time looking at people’s eyes than other infants.
Researchers publishing in Nature wanted to know when this “eye tracking” developed. They postulated that this “lack of normal staring” would be apparent at birth, that autistic kids would start this in infancy. They were shocked to find out it didn’t develop until 3 months of age.
In other words, researchers couldn’t tell any difference between the autistic kids at birth and the normal kids at birth. The differences didn’t become apparent until babies were 3 months old. Also, children who spent the least time looking into others’ eyes were more and more likely to develop severe autism.
This suggests there might be a window of opportunity when we could do something for a child that might keep them from becoming autistic. At the very least, we might do something to halt the progression.
This is a great finding. If it holds true in other studies, we might just have an early screening test for autism: “eye tracking.” And with that, we might find we can jump in with early intervention.
Back at the turn of the century, no one knew what “cretinism” was. It turned out it was due to a lack of thyroid hormone. Once doctors were able to replace this essential hormone, we cured the disease.
This autism research holds promise that there might be a critical time when we could take action to stop autism in its tracks as soon as it starts. That would be good news for all of us.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.