The scientists also identified specific brain circuits that seem to cause the slower response. The findings point to a problem with "sticky attention," the same phenomenon observed in preschool and older children with autism, but not well studied before in babies at risk for autism.
"This is a very exciting study, because the impairments in shifting gaze and attention that we found in seven-month-olds may be a fundamental problem in autism," said Robert T. Schultz, Director of the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a co-author on the study. "These results are another piece of the puzzle in pinpointing the earliest signs of autism. Understanding how autism begins and unfolds in the first years of life will pave the way for more effective interventions and better long-term outcomes for individuals with autism and their families."
Still in the dark
However, we seem to be no closer to knowing what causes autism and what's responsible for the huge increase in diagnosis. Is there some emerging, overt cause or are we simply now more aware of a condition that has always been there?
Some doctors believe the increased incidence in autism is due to newer definitions of the disorder. The term "autism" now includes a wider spectrum of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism today may have been thought to simply be odd or strange 30 years ago.
Parents who were unaware of the condition might have just accepted that their child was “a little different.” Today's parents are much more likely to seek medical advice if they have any concerns about their children's development.
A large part of the increase in autism cases comes from the African-American and Hispanic populations, two groups that in the past might not have had access to the health care they do today. Some suggest autism cases are not growing as much as awareness of the disorder is.