Autism can be spotted by watching babies’ reactions to incy-wincy spider and peek-a-boo, study says

Autism can be spotted by monitoring babies’ reactions to incy-wincy spider and peek-a-boo games, study says

  • Researchers monitored babies for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) study
  • Infants with lower levels of brain activity to ‘social’ games likely to develop ASD
  • They also reacted differently to videos of people yawning, laughing and crying
  • First study to show how babies’ brain responses can link to later ASD diagnosis 
  • There are an estimated 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK
  • Research led by Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development 

Signs of autism might be displayed in children as early as four-months-old, according to a new study looking at how babies react to playing games and hearing people laugh or cry. 

Babies who were later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) showed a lower level of brain activity in response to ‘social’ videos of people playing ‘peek-a-boo’ and ‘incy-wincy spider’, as well as laughing, coughing, yawning or crying.

However they were more reactive to ‘non-social’ images of inanimate objects, such as cars. 

A new study shows autism can be spotted in children as young as four-months-old, as their brains react differently to ‘social’ games with others, such as playing peek-a-boo (file pic)

As autism is thought to run in families, scientists compared scans of babies aged four to six months, who had siblings with ASD, and those without, to reach their conclusions. 

There are an estimated 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK. In the US, it is thought to be as high as 3.5 million.

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The study, a collaborative effort from scientists at Birkbeck, University of London, University of Cambridge, University College London and King’s College London and part of the wider British Autism Study for Infant Siblings (BASIS) Network is the first to show how a baby’s brain responses before the age of six months are associated with ASD diagnosis in later life.   

Speaking to Sarah Knapton for The Sunday Telegraph, lead researcher Dr Sarah Lloyd-Fox from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, said:

‘Given the importance of responding to others in our social world, it is possible that different attentional biases in babies may impact on the development of social brain responses, which can continue to affect the child’s developmental trajectory as they get older.

The study is the first to show how a baby’s brain responses are linked to a later ASD diagnosis 

‘Identifying early patterns of altered development which may later associate with ASD is important, because it will allow doctors to offer earlier interventions and provide families with earlier avenues for support.

‘This might mean giving the child and parents new strategies to reengage their attention towards important social cues and learn different ways of interacting.’ 


According to The National Autistic Society, autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with other people, and how they experience the world around them.

People with autism:

Have difficulties interpreting verbal and non-verbal language, like gestures or tone of voice.  

May not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will often understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express. 

Might have good language skills, but may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said or talking at length about their own interests.  

Have difficulty ‘reading’ other people – recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions – and expressing their own emotions.      

May find it hard to form friendships. Some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but are unsure how to go about it. 

Prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.

Are not comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they can prepare for changes in advance.

Might have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. 

Might experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain.      


The latest findings come just weeks after another study suggests women with polycystic ovary syndrome are more likely to have a child with autism.

Scientists have discovered women with the common condition face a 35 per cent higher chance of their youngster being on the spectrum.

The study has been hailed as an ‘important piece of new evidence’ as the medical community continues to search for the cause of ASD.

Previous studies have pointed the blame at elevated levels of testosterone, with the latest findings from Cambridge University concurring with this.

PCOS strikes one in ten women and is caused by high levels of the hormone, which is passed onto youngsters in the womb, researchers believe. 

Women with PCOS are thought to have a 35 per cent higher chance of having a child with ASD

Data from 8,500 women with PCOS and their first-born children was taken from a large NHS database of GP records for the study. 

Cambridge University scientists then compared them to a group of 41,000 women without the common condition and their children.

Women with PCOS had a 2.3 per cent chance of having an autistic child, compared to the 1.7 per cent chance for those without PCOS.

Led by Master’s student Adriana Cherskov, experts stressed the likelihood of having an autistic child is still very low, even among women with PCOS.

Ms Cherskov said: ‘This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones, such as testosterone.’

The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, builds on work in 2015 which found autistic children have higher levels of testosterone.

Experts believe this may explain why boys are estimated to be four times more likely to be on the spectrum than girls. 






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