Does Your Child Have Autism? New Tool May Aid Diagnosis

Eye gaze determines autism risk

young girl staring intently at a green leaf

Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD

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Diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has long been more art than science. Physicians often determine whether a child has autism based on what they learn from the child’s parents and what they observe in the exam room.

But now there’s a new tool to make autism diagnosis more clear-cut: an autism risk index developed by Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Autism.

The index is an objective and potentially more accurate way to help diagnose ASD. And it may help parents feel more confident in a diagnosis.

RELATED: How Having a Son with Autism Changed My Life

All in how you look at it

The autism risk index is based on how children look at objects, people and scenarios.

Children with ASD have abnormal eye-gaze and social-attention patterns. That’s what distinguishes them from children with other developmental disorders.

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For example, children with autism may have reduced eye contact or interest in social relationships. But they may over-fixate on parts of objects, like wheels on a toy car, or ideas, like how train routes are scheduled.

RELATED: If Your Child Has Autism, Perception Matters

Creating the autism risk index

In a recent study, our team at the Center for Autism evaluated two groups of children, ages 3 to 8. One group had been diagnosed with autism. The second group had another (non-autism) developmental disorder. Researchers (who didn’t know the diagnoses) tested the eye gaze of each child to see if it could indicate his or her group.

Children watched a variety of photos and videos on a monitor. Some included “social” subjects, such as a child telling a joke. Others included “non-social” subjects, such as geometric shapes.

A remote eye-tracker device recorded how long children looked at certain things, such as faces or body movements. Researchers then averaged looking times, and compared them to the looking times of children without autism, to create the autism risk index.

The more time looking at non-social targets, like a door hinge, rather than social targets, like a person’s face, the higher the score.

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Higher scores indicated higher risk of autism.

RELATED: Can Your Child’s Autism Go Away?

How accurate is it?

When compared with expert diagnoses, autism risk index scores were remarkably accurate. Out of 40 children in the autism group, the index correctly identified 32 (80 percent). Out of 39 children in the non-autism group, the index again correctly identified 32 (82 percent).

It will take more research to prepare the index for general use, but things look promising.

We believe eye-gaze tracking is an easy and faster way to identify ASD. The sooner we can diagnose it, the sooner we can help patients and families dealing with it.

RELATED: 7 Surprises About People with Autism

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