Washington: Scientists have designed a smartphone app that can track eye movement to determine, in less than a minute, if a child is showing signs of autism spectrum disorder.
Early detection of autism can dramatically improve the benefits of treatment, but often the disability is not suspected until a child enters school, researchers said.
“The brain continues to grow and develop after birth. The earlier the diagnosis, the better. Then we can inform families and begin therapies which will improve symptoms and outcome,” said Michelle Hartley-McAndrew, assistant professor at University at Buffalo (UB) in the US.
“We offer many educational interventions to help children with autism reach the same developmental milestones met by children with typical development,” said Kathy Ralabate Doody, an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State College.
The app tracks eye movements of a child looking at pictures of social scenes – for example, those with multiple people. The eye movements of someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often different from those of a person without autism. In the study, the app had an accuracy rating of 93.96 per cent.
“Right now it is a prototype. We have to consider if other neurological conditions are included, like ADD, how that will affect the outcome,” said Kun Woo Cho, an undergraduate in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Autism spectrum disorder affects 1-2 people per 1,000 worldwide, researchers said.
“The beauty of the mobile app is that it can be used by parents at home to assess the risk of whether a child may have ASD,” said Wenyao Xu, University at Buffalo assistant professor.
“This can allow families to seek therapy sooner, and improve the benefits of treatment,” he said.
The study found that photos of social scenes evoke the most dramatic differences in eye movement between children with and without ASD.
The eye tracking patterns of children with ASD looking at the photos are scattered, versus a more focused pattern of children without ASD.
“We speculate that it is due to their lack of ability to interpret and understand the relationship depicted in the social scene,” Cho said.
Use of the app takes up to 54 seconds, which makes it less intrusive than other tests and valuable with children with short attention spans.
The study included 32 children ranging in age from two to 10. Half of the children had been previously diagnosed with autism. The other half did not have ASD.
One benefit of the technology is that parents could use it at home to determine if there is a need for clinical examination, researchers said.