Autism may be identified early with eye-tracking device, studies show

A device that tracks children’s eyes as they watch videos that show the interaction of two kids could accelerate the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, Researchers say.

The results of two studies, which were published simultaneously this week in JAMA and JAMA Network Open, suggest that tablets are able to detect the condition for children aged between 16 and 30 months with the same accuracy as a doctor could.

The device monitors a viewer’s eye movements at an frequency of up to 120 per second. It lets experts discern at a moment’s notice what the children’s social interactions are getting, with generally developing children paying attention to the interactions, while toddlers who have autism focus on other areas on the screen. The findings can be made accessible in just 30 minutes.

“Currently, autism is diagnosed by a highly trained expert over multiple hours of testing,” said the study’s writer, Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. “Unfortunately there aren’t enough of these experts.”

Jones is also the co-scientific director and is an advisor of EarliTec Diagnostics, which makes the diagnostic devices.

A lack of experts means that specialty clinics have lengthy list of patients waiting to be seen, Jones said.

“Identifying children with autism before age 3 is really important,” he added. “While treatment can help children thrive at any age, studies have shown that there are better long-term outcomes in children who are identified earlier.”

This is because brains of children are “plastic,” meaning they are more flexible and adaptable.

It is recommended that children be screened for autism between the ages of 18 and 24 months. American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening children for autism between an age between 18 months and 24 months. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they recommend that the typical age of diagnosis is just under 4.5 years.

The study that was presented in JAMA Network Open describes initial testing of the device using 1,089 children with an average age of is 22 months. The JAMA report described the results of a study conducted at six of the nation’s top autism centers. The trial involved 499 children between the ages of 16 and 30 months were initially assessed using the device, followed by a review by specialists.

Both studies concluded that the diagnostic capabilities of the device were similar to those of specialists.

The trials represent the culmination of 20 years of research conducted by Jones and his coworkers.

The device, which is dubbed EarliPoint Evaluation, received Food and Drug Administration approval on June 29. The device is utilized as a tool to diagnose children being examined by specialists. Researchers are currently investigating whether the device can be utilized by pediatricians as well as primary care physicians to evaluate more children.

EarliPoint is being utilized in the Marcus Autism Center in the Marcus Autism Center, and the three centers in other locations are putting contracts. Eye tracking research is also being conducted to gain insight into autism, however none of the other devices are being utilized by doctors to help diagnose the condition, Jones said.

The concept behind the technology is to recognize children who are autistic by detecting their lack of interest in others. Children usually learn to socialize by watching how people around them interact. The EarliPoint is a way to identify children who don’t pay much (if any) focus on the interaction between kids on the screen.

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If kids aren’t understanding how to behave based on observation, they could never master. If children are found to be having autism, they may receive therapy which reduces the social interactions and behaviors into steps. It also teach autistic children the things that normally growing children can pick up by themselves without having to think about it, according to experts.

For Renee Britt’s son Dawson The treatment seems to be effective. Dawson initially appeared to be developing as an average child however, he began declining just prior to turning two. “All of a sudden, he wouldn’t talk anymore and started struggling,” Britt explained.

Renee Britt and Dawson.Courtesy Renee Britt

The boy would yell at the ceiling whenever the family attempted to shop for groceries, or was waiting for coffee shop orders.

Britt decided to sign up for a trial with an older version of EarliPoint. At the age of 3, Dawson was diagnosed with autism and was able to begin therapy. Britt discovered strategies to increase Dawson’s shopping aversion. The first few trips to the shop and the boy was always given an unassuming toy after the shopping was finished. The child began to think of shopping as an enjoyable experience and the family could take longer and longer trips to the shop.

Britt was taught to look for subtle warning signs that could appear before an outburst. At a pep rally, when the music was too intense for his ears, Dawson covered his ears and began tapping his feet. Britt asked him whether he was okay. If he did not answer, she asked whether he was willing to go for a walk. It worked.

“When he was younger, there would be zero conversation,” she explained. “He would just start screaming and trying to run.”

He is now 12 years old. Dawson is in school with his normally developing classmates. If the family has for shopping “I can show him our list and he will help us get the things on the list,” Britt stated.

Dawson and Renee Britt.Courtesy Renee Britt

Autism specialist Blythe Corbett was pleased with the results of the study.

“We really need objective tools to assist in our diagnoses,” Corbett stated. Corbett, James G. Blakemore Chair in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He is an instructor in psychiatry as well as behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

These techniques currently usedare slow-going “and it would be extremely helpful to identify these kinds of objective biomarkers that the two studies are employing,” Corbett said. Corbett, who was not part of the research.

In around 30percent of the cases, the most renowned specialists aren’t sure of their diagnosis, Corbett said. In these cases, eye-tracking data can be more useful. “Another fascinating aspect of the eye-tracking index is that they are using videos that seem to capture natural social environments a child between 16 to 30 months might be exposed to and learn from,” she explained.

The device could someday be used to help triage children to ensure the most affected ones are quickly referred to specialists. It could also improve diagnosis time so kids don’t have to wait for a long time before they can receive therapy, Corbett said.

The new data “are really promising in relation to being able to apply to kids who already have some developmental concerns as well as those in the general population,” said Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, a professor of psychiatry and director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Veenstra Van Weele said the instruments could be used to identify children who require further evaluation, but they aren’t diagnostic.

“There are some kids for whom they are highly predictive,” he added and suggested that a follow-up study will determine if the tool can speed up the diagnostic process.


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