McMaster University researcher Mel Rutherford has developed a 10-minute test to tell if babies as young as nine months are at high risk of having autism.
At a conference in London today, Dr. Rutherford will present preliminary results from a continuing experiment in which she settles babies in a car seat and uses an eye tracker to assess their interest in images on a computer screen.
Are they more interested in a face, or another image matched for lightness and contrast? Do they prefer looking at the eyes or the mouth? Do they follow the movement of the eyes in a face? Do they spend more time watching two balls that look like they are playing together, or two that are bouncing independently?
One group of babies in her study is at high risk of having the neurological disorder because a sibling has it.
The control group is made up of babies with no family history of autism.
Even at nine months, the babies at high risk of having autism are less drawn to faces, less likely to follow a change in eye direction, and less interested in the balls that are playing together.
This means, she says, that the test could be used as a fast, objective screening tool to identify babies that need to be closely watched because they may develop autism.
But she can't yet use the test to diagnose babies.
"Right now I can't look at a nine-month-old and say this kid has autism and this kid doesn't. But we are working toward that," she says.
So far, more than 40 babies have been tested at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. Thirteen of them have been in the high-risk group. The children came back at age 2, and three of the 13 in the high-risk group were diagnosed with the disorder.
As she recruits more children into the study, she is hoping to see a difference between children in the high-risk group who are diagnosed with the disorder and those who are not.
"Ultimately we want to look at an individual baby and say, 'What is the probability of this baby developing with autism?' "
The earliest that autism can be reliably diagnosed is age 2, and most children in Ontario are not diagnosed until they are 3 or 4.
But her preliminary results show that autism is developing much earlier, Dr. Rutherford says. The results were reviewed by a jury of scientists before today's conference, but have not yet appeared in a medical journal.
Autism and related conditions, known under the catch-all term autism spectrum disorders, have become increasingly common in recent years. The Autism Society Canada estimates the incidence rate in the country is one in every 286 births. The condition is about four times more common in boys than girls.
The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism, the better the overall prognosis, Dr. Rutherford says.
While there are behavioural therapies for toddlers with the disorder, there are none yet for babies, but they shouldn't be hard to develop, she says.
"It would be trying to work with the children to develop an interest in social things in their environment, to try and encourage an interest in faces ... these are the things the kids are not developing in the same way as typical kids."
Stacy Maynard is the mother of two-year-old Adam, who was recently diagnosed with autism. Before he started his therapy, he wasn't making eye contact with her or speaking much. He didn't respond when she said his name, and never asked her for anything.
But the Oakville, Ont., woman has noticed a huge difference in her youngest son after only two months of therapy. He has two three-hour sessions a week to work on language, eye contact and cognitive skills.
"The progress he has made is astronomical. He is looking at me. He can point out objects now. He said 'bye-bye' to me a couple of weeks ago and I pretty much broke down in tears."
He has started joining in activities with the rest of his family, including his four-year-old brother, rather than always playing by himself.
"On Mother's Day he saw the three of us dancing in the kitchen. He put his cup down on the table and came to join in, which is amazing."
Ms. Maynard knows she was lucky that Adam was diagnosed at 2, but she wishes she had known about his condition earlier.
"I have a child who was diagnosed early, and I still feel like I am catching up," she said. "To have a diagnosis at an earlier age would be unbelievable. The outcome would be so much better for the child."