The Wall Street Journal recently described some interesting new research related to the early detection of autism. Some scientists suggest that babies at risk for developing autism have different facial-scanning eye movement patterns. In other words, babies tend to focus on the eyes and mouth of faces in their direct line of sight. Babies at risk for developing autism have difficulty recognizing faces and their eyes may tend to wander. Although this test is not a diagnostic tool, it could be used to predict risk as early as 9 months – which could allow parents to get their children into early intervention programs sooner than they do now.
Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University recently announced that they had developed a computerized test using eye-movement sensors that aims to predict the risk of autism in children as young as 9 months. The system, which administers five eye-tracking tests over 10 minutes, measures the direction and fixation of a child’s eyes when confronted with computerized images, including human faces.
“Children with autism in general have difficulty extracting affective information from faces, and also difficulty in recognizing faces,” says Katarzyna Chawarska, director of the Yale clinic. By tracking eye movements, “we can begin to understand what interests them, how they examine objects they select for processing, and what motivates them intrinsically,” she says.
But eye-tracking won’t pick out all children with autism. That’s because the disorder can manifest itself in a variety of ways at different ages, such as a child not responding when called or failing to exhibit normal body gestures. Some children also won’t cooperate with the eye-tracking equipment.
I think it’s too early to know how valuable this tool will be in the evaluation of children at risk for autism spectrum disorders, but it’s certainly an interesting idea.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.