Unusual Object Examination in Infancy May Be Early Predictor of Autism

When a child has autism, knowing at an earlier age is helpful so that interventions can be made sooner. Early predictors can be key in ensuring a timely diagnosis. A new study says parents may have a clue based on the way their infant visually examines objects.

Researchers at University of California Davis examined the way infants 9 months of age and older interacted with objects, then measured their social interactions afterward. They found that children who visually inspected the objects in an unusual way were more apt to be diagnosed with autism later. The study was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.


Unusual visual inspection includes looking out of the corners of the eyes, holding an object up very close to the face, looking at something with one eye closed, or staring at an object uninterrupted for more than 10 seconds. Meghan Miller, the study’s first author and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis, says this type of behavior had already been linked to autism at an older age, but never in anyone as young as 9-months-old.

Miller says, “The findings support major theories of autism which hypothesize that infants’ over-focus on objects might be at the expense of their interest in people. Ultimately, this study suggests that unusual visual inspection of objects may precede development of the social symptoms characteristic of ASD.”

To conduct the study, the research team evaluated 89 infants who were considered high-risk for autism due to having an older sibling on the spectrum, as well as 58 infants whose older siblings had typical development. The infants completed tasks involving play or use of different objects six times, beginning at 9 months of age and ending when they were 3-years-old.


After each session, the researchers looked at the children’s social behaviors, including frequency of eye contact, frequency of smiling at people, and social responsiveness. They also looked out for unusual visual inspection, spinning, and rotating of objects.

When the participants reached 3 years of age, 58 children were classified as low-risk non-ASD, 72 were classified as high-risk non-ASD, and 17 had been diagnosed with autism.

While there was not a strong link between the development of autism and spinning or rotating objects, the children who had developed ASD engaged in unusual visual inspection of objects more frequently at 9-months-old than the other groups. This behavior then continued for this group at higher rates at all ages.


Researchers say these findings could help with autism screening in the future.

Sally Ozonoff, the study’s principal investigator and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis, explains, “An increased focus on objects early in life may have detrimental cascading effects on social behavior. Findings from our study suggest that unusual visual exploration of objects may be a valuable addition to early screening and diagnostic tools for ASD.”

To learn about other early signs of autism, read more here.

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