In much the same way that many with Down syndrome exhibit hallmark facial characteristics, a new study suggests that those with autism also share unique features.

After comparing 3-D images of 64 boys with autism and 41 typically developing kids ages 8 to 12, researchers at the University of Missouri identified a distinct pattern of facial features shared only by those with the developmental disability.

Specifically, the study found that boys with autism had a broader upper face with wider eyes; a shorter middle section, including the cheeks and nose; and a broader mouth and philtrum, the cleft between the nose and upper lip.

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Using images of each child’s head, the researchers also pinpointed traits unique to kids with autism who shared certain challenges such as behavior problems.

While the characteristics are subtle, the findings reported this month in the journal Molecular Autism, could help researchers gain a better understanding of autism, those behind the study say.

“If we can identify when these facial changes occur, we could pinpoint when autism may begin to develop in a child,” said Kristina Aldridge, an assistant professor of anatomy at the University of Missouri who led the study. “Knowing that point in time could lead us to identify a genetic cause, a window of time when the embryo may be susceptible to an environmental factor, or both.”