New Protocol Could Improve Early Autism Diagnosis Through Eye Tracking

Image of infant with eyes

Researchers from the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a new testing protocol to screen infants, toddlers and young children for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using eye tracking software. The tool could increase early detection rates and reduce the time and cost of current screening techniques.

Here are five things to know about the team’s work, taken from a recent article on the Martinos Center website.

Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve the prognosis and later life function of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—the earlier the detection, the better. The current average age of detection is ages 3-4, though autistic individuals show signs as early as infancy.

The standard diagnostic tools (the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and the Autism Diagnostic Interview) can only be performed by professionals, typically have a long wait time, cannot be applied to children younger than one and can be subjective due to their reliance on questionnaires, observations, interviews and developmental tests.

Eye tracking tests have generated increasing interest in recent years as a more practical, objective and timely alternative. Individuals with ASD exhibit behaviors that can be detected with eye tracking such as difficulty interpreting gaze cues (following another person’s gaze); focusing more on systematic pictures (those with repeating patterns); and decreased attention to faces, among others. Current eye tracking tests for autism have employed dynamic social scenes to assess visual response, but these tend to be too complicated for infants.

The new paradigm developed by Mass General researcher Xue-Jun (June) Kong, MD, and colleagues was designed to screen infants as well as toddlers and young children. The two-minute test consists of 10 short video scenarios designed assess eye gaze (where the eyes are focused), eye following (how well the eyes follow objects in motion), joint attention (how attention is divided between two or more visual stimuli) and emotional response.

More research is now needed to compare the results of this new testing protocol against the standard diagnostic models in both individuals with autism and healthy controls.

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