To improve their ability to treat autism, researchers are working to identify symptoms of the condition in infants as young as 6 months old.

A team led by pediatrics professor Katarzyna Chawarska of the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center is attempting to discern the link between attention deficits and the risk of autism in patients with a family history of the disorder. The study’s results point to a higher incidence of inattentiveness in 6-month-old infants who were later diagnosed with autism themselves. These findings were first published online in the January 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry.

“For a number of years, we’ve been working on identifying early signs of autism. We want to understand the earliest age when the developmental trajectories of infants who later develop autism begin to diverge from those that we see in typically developing children, or children without disorders,” Chawarska said.

Chawarska’s study used innovative vision-tracking technology to analyze the reactions of 67 at-risk infants and 50 control group infants to visual, auditory and social stimuli. The infants were shown a video of a woman performing various familiar tasks — such as playing with toys — as she addressed the viewer directly. Ultimately, the children with a family history of autism tended to spend less time watching the video and making eye contact with the woman than the children without any autistic predispositions, Chawarska said.

“We were very excited because the study tells us that, at 6 months, the children who later develop autism have difficulty selecting important social features from their visual field,” Chawarska said.

Children with attention deficits, such as the at-risk infants in this study, may have trouble interacting even with close individuals such as parents, which researchers said could indicate future developmental problems.

“Even a small difficulty in attending continuously to mom’s face when something important happens may have influence later on what children learn about people in the world and communication,” Chawarska said.

This discovery could have huge implications in doctors’ ability to detect autism within the first year of infants’ lives, researchers said. Currently, behavioral measures are used to identify autistic symptoms by the time a child is 2 years old. With this new information, however, doctors may be able to diagnose autism in children as young as 6 months old. Such early diagnoses could greatly improve the effectiveness of treatment for the disorder.

“We are hopeful that behavioral interventions begun before the age of 2 are preventative, at least to some degree for some children in terms of improving autism symptoms, but also in terms of fostering critical verbal and nonverbal skills,” said Child Study Center Associate Research Scientist Suzanne Macari, who worked with Chawarska on this project.

Autism researchers agree Chawarska’s findings are encouraging. Kevin Pelphrey, the director of the Child Neuroscience Laboratory at Yale, called the study a “game changer” that sheds light on the early stages of autism.

“[The results of this study] will likely lead to early diagnosis and fundamental changes in the way we treat autism,” he said.

Autism currently affects one out of every 88 children in the United States, according to the National Autism Association.