New test helps diagnose autism in 9-month-old infants

Canadian researchers have developed a new test for diagnosing autism as early as nine months of age.

Mel Rutherford of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., has led a team that has been using eye-tracker technology to measures babies' eye directions while they look at faces, eyes and bouncing balls on a computer screen.

Rutherford, an associate psychology professor, says the test is "not at all invasive." The eye-tracker camera sits on a table in front of the child and collects data from eye movement for 10 minutes.

She believes that this is a way to measure how engaged babies are with their environment, which is a marker for normal development.

"It gives us the hope that we will some day be able to say for certain that an individual baby is developing with autism or not developing with autism as early as nine months," said Rutherford.

Researchers have found that children who are developing normally pay attention to people's faces and engage in eye contact. However, children with autism don't focus on the eyes, or don't look directly in the face at all.

"I can do this in 10 minutes, and it is objective, meaning that the only measure is eye direction; it's not influenced by a clinician's report or by intuition. Nobody's been able to distinguish between these groups at so early an age."

"Because we know that autism is developing early in the first year of life we can now exclude some hypotheses that have to do with later developing cognitive skills," explained Rutherford.

Despite the fact that doctors can diagnose a child with autism around two years of age, most children are diagnosed around age four.

"There is an urgent need for a quick, reliable and objective screening tool to aid in diagnosing autism much earlier than is presently possible," Rutherford said.

Diagnosing children earlier will lead them into treatment at a very young age, which most doctors agree is the key to minimizing the disease's symptoms.
"We are hoping that within the next couple years we will have a stronger tool to really identify those babies with a higher risk of developing autism," said Rutherford.

Researchers at McMaster University will continue to recruit babies who have a sibling with autism to take part in the study.

"The more babies we have in the study the better our prediction will be when we look at an individual baby," Rutherford said.

Children with autism have difficulty with social interaction, communication and they may engage in repetitive behaviours.

Treatments like intensive behavioural training can help kids with autism acquire communication skills and help them interact more closely with their families.