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Doctors May Be Able to Predict Autism Spectrum Disorder Much Earlier

A New Test for Autism: Which Newborns Are At Risk of ASD?

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The first symptoms of autism aren’t apparent until children start talking and interacting with others, health experts can’t definitively diagnose the condition until babies are about two years old, when language and social skills start to emerge.

Some experts argue that may be too late in terms of treating or minimizing the effects of autism, since whatever brain changes responsible for them have already taken place.

However, a new report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics may give worried parents new hope.

Scientists have developed a new app which can detect autism using just a mobile phone.

The app uses short films and gaze detection technology to pick up on whether children look more at objects or human characters – a tell-tale sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

While the technology is in early stages the team behind it, from Duke University in the USA, believe it could be easily scaled up and used on any smart phone or tablet.

Dr. Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, and co-senior author of a study, said:

“We know that babies who have autism pay attention to the environment differently and are not paying as much attention to people.

“We can track eye gaze patterns in toddlers to assess risk for autism.

”This is the first time that we’ve been able to provide this type of assessment using only a smartphone or tablet. This study served as a proof-of-concept, and we’re very encouraged.”

Dr. Dawson and colleagues, including the study’s lead author Dr. Zhuoqing Chang, began working on the app several years ago.

But in this latest version, the researchers strategically designed movies that would allow them to assess a young child’s preference for looking at objects more than at people.

One movie, for example, shows a cheerful woman playing with a spinning-top. In the film, she dominates one side of the screen while the top she is spinning is on the other side.

The researchers found that toddlers without autism scanned the entire screen throughout the video, focusing more often on the woman.

Toddlers who were later diagnosed with autism, however, more often focused on the side of the screen with the toy.

Another movie was similarly designed and showed a man blowing bubbles. 

Eye-tracking has been used previously to assess gaze patterns in people with autism. But this has required special equipment and expertise and analysis.

This app-based test, which takes less than 10 minutes to administer and uses the front-facing camera to record the child’s behavior, only needs a tablet or smartphone, making it readily accessible to primary care clinics and useable in the home.

Dr Chang, postdoctoral associate in Duke’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said:

”This was the technical achievement many years in the making.

“It required our research team to design the movies in a specific way to elicit and measure the gaze patterns of attention using only a hand-held device.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come to achieve this ability to assess eye gaze without specialized equipment, using a common device many have in their pocket.”

To test the device, the researchers included 993 toddlers ages 16-38-months-old. 

The average age was 21 months, which is when autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often identified. 40 of the toddlers were diagnosed with ASD using gold-standard diagnostic methods.

Dr Dawson said additional studies with infants as young as six-months-old are ongoing to see whether the app-based assessment could identify differences in children who are later diagnosed with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders during the first year of life.

Dr Dawson added:

”We hope that this technology will eventually provide greater access to autism screening, which is an essential first step to intervention.

“Our long-term goal is to have a well-validated, easy-to-use app that providers and caregivers can download and use, either in a regular clinic or home setting.

“We have additional steps to go, but this study suggests it might one day be possible.”

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