Autism might be identified by following children’s gaze patterns as they watch movies of social interactions, according to a new study from Ben-Gurion University, published in the journal Autism Research.
The study was led by Professor Ilan Dinstein, of Ben-Gurion University’s Departments of Psychology and Cognitive and Brain Sciences, and director of Israel’s National Autism Research Center. According to Dinstein, while eye tracking will likely be one of the first technologies clinicians use to assess autism symptoms, it needs to be optimized to identify specific symptoms of autism.
“This new study takes a first important step in this direction using eye tracking technology to compare different movies and measures within the same group of children," he said.
According to a report by Medical Xpress.com, the research was presented on October 27 at the Breaking the Barriers of Brain Science symposium at the Intercontinental New York Times Square.
In the study, researchers presented autistic and neurotypical (non-autistic) children with three short movies, each shown twice. Two of the films were animated, while the third was a realistic home video, and all featured social interactions between at least two characters. While children without autism typically agree on where and when to look at specific locations on screen, children with autism were more unpredictable, with their gaze patterns varying not only between individuals, but across movie presentations as well.
Dinstein said that measuring this unusual gaze pattern in individual children allowed the researchers to distinguish between autistic and non-autistic children with more accuracy than usual measures, such as time gazing at faces.
The largest difference between the autistic and neurotypical children was observed when viewing a realistic video depicting an interaction between two sisters in a messy room with everyday objects. This suggests that the unusual gaze patterns were most pronounced when the children with autism viewed unedited, real-life interactions of other children.
“These results demonstrate that ASD children with more severe symptoms exhibit larger gaze idiosyncrasy," Dinstein said. "This can aid not only in early detection of autism, but also in assessing changes in ASD severity over time and in response to treatments. Such measures, which objectively measure symptoms directly from the child, are critically lacking in today's clinical trials of autism treatments."