Researchers link superior visual ability in infants to autism

Superior visual ability in infants may be indicative that they are likely to develop autism as they grow up, researchers say in a study recently published in the journal Cell Press and reported here in the Press Release.

In a research funded by Britain’s Medical Research Council, researchers from a number of universities in London examined the visual ability of 109 infants using eye-tracking devices— and found that 82 percent of them were at risk of developing autism, mainly due to the fact that an older sibling was already previously diagnosed on the spectrum, while 27 percent were found to be at low risk.

The researchers examined the infant participants’ visual ability in the study through a test that involved a screen showing a circle of Xs, mixed together with the letters S, O, V, and the plus sign (+). Researchers recorded the speed at which the infants were able to single out the odd letters and or symbols from the circle of Xs to find out if they possessed superior visual ability.

The infants were first examined at 9 months old, and then later on re-examined at ages 15 months and two years old. At age two, 20 percent of them were diagnosed with autism, while 30 percent were found to have been showing increased symptoms of the developmental disorder. According to University of London Birkbeck Babylab Professor Teodora Gliga, who is also the lead author of the study:

“Although atypical perception, such as better visual search and hypersensitivity to sounds, are common in autism, they were rarely considered as a core feature in early development. Our finding is therefore striking since it strongly suggests atypical perception may be a driving force of later poor social interaction and communication symptoms.”

In the study, the children who were fastest to spot the odd letters and or symbols from the circle of Xs showed more symptoms of autism by the time they reached the age of 15 months and two years old. Professor Gliga added:

“People with autism have both difficulties and strengths compared to the rest of us. We know some of the difficulties can be detected fairly early in life, but this study shows that unusual strengths can also be seen in infants.”

Palto, California Children’s Health Council Medical Director and Chief Psychiatrist Dr. Glen Elliott warned, however, that superior visual ability in infants does not necessarily indicate that the children will surely develop autism at a later age. He told:

“It is far too early to tell whether this methodology will lead to earlier diagnosis of children at risk for development of autism. The sample size is too small and too narrow to permit generalizations about the utility of the technique, and much more information is needed for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.”

The researchers of the study, on the other hand, are hopeful that their findings will pave way for even earlier diagnosis for autism in young children. According to Professor Gliga:

“This discovery potentially allows us to design future therapies around these infants’ strengths in order to enhance the later quality of life for individuals with the condition.”

Source: Tara Haelle on the WebMD News website: Superior Visual Ability Seen in Kids With Autism

 

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