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a picture of several face eye tracking heat maps

Through Their Eyes

Diagnosing children with autism as early and as efficiently as possible has always been a great challenge for autism providers and for families. Despite, or perhaps because of, the increased awareness of autism, waitlists for diagnostic evaluations by trained clinicians can last for months or even years at autism centers across the country.

To help improve autism diagnostic efficiency and reduce wait times for families desperate for answers, researchers at the Thompson Center are working to test a newly developed autism screening test that could help identify children as having a high risk for autism quickly and cheaply.

“We are always looking for better, faster and easier ways to identify children who may be on the autism spectrum,” said Dr. Stephen Kanne, Thompson Center executive director and lead investigator for the new study. “If we can find ways to identify children who may be at risk as soon as possible, we can get them evaluated by an expert and into treatment at a much earlier age, which improves potential outcomes greatly.”

Funded by a newly awarded $900,000 grant from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), the Thompson Center will serve as the lead site for a three-year multi-site study to determine the effectiveness of an autism screener which operates by tracking the eyes and viewing patterns of children. The other sites include Stanford University and the University of Virginia.

The screening test, called AutismEYES, was first developed by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Tom Frazier and measures a child’s viewing patterns when shown videos of people communicating socially. While viewing the videos, the children’s eyes are monitored using motion tracking technology. The researchers believe that they might be able to determine autism risk based on which parts of the video scenes the children choose to focus on.

For example, when watching a scene of two people having a conversation at a restaurant, a typically developing child would most likely be drawn to the faces of the two people, paying attention to what they are saying and how they are acting. On the other hand, a child with autism may be more likely to ignore the faces on the screen and instead focus on items in the periphery, such as a clock on the wall or the food on the table.

“This screener can quickly and easily measure eye gaze without a complicated process, making it intriguing to autism diagnosticians as a simpler way to identify children with a risk for autism,” Kanne said. “Children identified by this screener would still need an expert evaluation, but this screener, if proven effective, could help fast-track those kids to receive the evaluation and treatment they need.”

To study AutismEYES, Kanne and the team of Thompson Center researchers, including Thompson Center clinician and researcher Dr. Kerri Nowell, will spend three years evaluating children who have already been diagnosed with autism. If these tests show a consistent pattern in how children with autism view the videos, potential exists for further longitudinal studies that would include typically developing children in order to measure the differences in viewing patterns. Ultimately, the researchers hope that AutismEYES proves to be a quick, inexpensive and effective way to identify children on the spectrum.

“This is a test that could easily be taught to people with minimal training,” Kanne said. “While it takes years of training and education to become an expert autism diagnostician, just a few hours could be spent training someone in a physician’s office or a school district to implement a test like this. While this screener doesn’t replace a clinical diagnosis by a trained professional, it can help identify at-risk children and fast-track them to receive a professional diagnosis. Finding ways to reduce barriers and improve access for all children is one of our primary missions as autism researchers and advocates, so we are hopeful tests like these can be further developed and implemented around the country.”