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Detecting Autism Through The Eyes

PITTSBURGH (Ivanhoe Newswire) --A baby’s first birthday is a huge milestone usually marked with a party, presents, and home video. It’s also around this time that a parent may first start to suspect a child’s developmental delay may be the sign of something serious. Experts have a difficult time diagnosing an autism spectrum disorder before the age of two, but there’s one thing doctors can see earlier than ever before.

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Eleven-month-old Jayden Foreaker loves video time. While Jayden learns from Mr. Rogers, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are learning from Jayden.

“It’s very important to me for them to pick up, if they see anything at an early age,” Casey Foreaker, Jayden’s Mom, told Ivanhoe.

Two years ago, doctors diagnosed Jayden’s older brother Dalton with autism. Research shows siblings of autistic kids are also at high risk. Inside a specially designed lab at the Center for Excellence in Autism Research, psychologists are looking for infant behavior that may predict a later autism diagnosis. Technicians monitor a baby’s response to recorded images. An infrared camera tracks eye movements.

“There’s some indication that in older children and adults with autism they don’t pay the same degree of attention to people as they do to objects and things in the background,” Mark Strauss, Ph.D., Psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh told Ivanhoe.

Strauss and his team also check to see which side of an adult’s face babies focus on. Scientists say from infancy, human brains are wired to look to the right side. Imaging studies have shown adults with autism don’t favor either side.

Even playtime with mom gives researchers valuable insight by measuring the baby’s facial expression.

“You actually look for the individual muscle movements,” Dr. Strauss explained.

Researchers say an earlier diagnosis may eventually mean earlier intervention for kids on the spectrum.

“Whether Jayden has issues or not, we’re gonna love him. Just like we love Dalton. No one will change that,” Foreaker concluded.

Researchers say the earlier therapists can begin working with children on the autism spectrum, the more success they may have improving a child’s communication and social skills. The Early Autism Study plans to recruit around 100 children, and follow their development through age four.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Dr. Mark Strauss
Department of Psychology
University of Pittsburgh

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