These findings could help pediatricians diagnose and treat autism earlier, reducing some of the social and educational challenges associated with the disorder.
While studying a group of kids at high risk for developing autism, the researchers found that those eventually diagnosed with the disorder were more likely to spin, repetitively rotate, stare at and look out of the corners of their eyes at simple objects, including a baby bottle and a rattle, as early as 12 months of age.
"There is an urgent need to develop measures that can pick up early signs of autism, signs present before 24 months," said M.I.N.D. researcher Sally Ozonoff, first author of the current study.
"The finding that the unusual use of toys is also present early in life means that this behavior could easily be added to a parent check-list or quickly assessed during a visit to a pediatrician's office," Ozonoff said.
For the study, researches involved 66 one-year-old infants. Nine of the children were later diagnosed with autism. Seven of the nine children displayed significantly more spinning, rotating and unusual visual exploration of objects than typically developing children.
"We found that these behaviors were relatively rare in the contrast group, but very high in the group who later developed autism," Ozonoff said.
The study was published in the October issue of Autism, the journal of the National Autistic Society.