Now, experts at the University of London’s Birkbeck University Baby Lab are developing a test for six- to 10-month old babies based on brain activity, rather than behaviour.
Sensors are placed on the babies’ scalps to measure brain activity while the infants are shown faces that switch between looking at them and looking away.
Programme director Teodora Gliga explained how the experiment works: “We chose one of the most important objects in a baby’s environment which is faces. They become very quickly familiarised with their mother’s face and also eye gaze – where someone is looking – is also very important. When someone is looking at them it means they want to interact, when someone is looking away from them they may be telling them where to look, what to learn from the environment. “
Researchers found that six-month-old babies who later go on to develop autism show reduced brain activity in response to the movement of eyes.
“A child that will not later on develop autism will make a difference between someone looking towards them or away from them, because they mean different things. What we see in those infants who later develop autism is that they do not have this difference,” Gliga said.
Picking up on these early signs means there can now be earlier and more effective intervention, improving the quality of life for both children and their families.
Experts are now trying to establish whether the test can be used for early diagnosis of ADHD as well as autism.