Researchers at the University of Waterloo are in the process of developing a technology that could potentially diagnose autism at an earlier age with less stress on the child and greater reliability than the current method.
By tracking how children study faces, taking into consideration how long they look at the subject’s features and how they move their gaze to process them, scientists have learned the differences of how neuro-typical children and those that fall on the autism spectrum (University of Waterloo, 2019). The University study evaluated how 23 neuro-typical children and 17 autistic children shifted their gaze to observe various facial features of images on a screen. The differences in patterns has provided researchers with guidelines on what movements to watch for when diagnosing autism spectrum disorders.
Prior to this study, autism was typically diagnosed after an evaluation with a psychologist that involved questionnaires that children often struggle with. Through the old model, patients would often receive a false autism diagnosis, as they would get bored or restless during the evaluation, causing unreliable results. By measuring how a child sees a face, the findings are more objective.
This trial has the potential to uncover even smaller nuisances in time, as more and more children are studied in this manner. As a mother of a child on the spectrum, I can attest to how taxing the questionnaires and evaluations can be on a young child. Tracking eye movements and shifts in gaze seem like a significantly easier option for children, who tend to be diagnosed before age six.
Information about people on the spectrum straying away from eye contact has been in literature for years, but this is the first study of how those with autism look at facial features, including the eyes, when gauging faces. Eye-tracking is still a new technology but it may become a staple in spectrum testing in the future.