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The Eye-Opening Test That Could Help Diagnose Autism Disorders

Photograph by Twenty20

Waiting for answers when your child is ill—or something is off but you can't put your finger on what—is an agonizing experience, even if they have no idea they are suffering. What if you had to wait years?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that can take up to 2 years (or more) to diagnose. Because of this, doctors encourage parents to "sit tight" while they figure things out. The problem is that the longer they wait; the less likely their child is to get the early intervention they need.

But early detection of autism spectrum disorders may soon be as easy as scheduling an eye exam for your baby.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center have come up with a test to measure rapid eye movement, which indicates deficits in an area of the brain that plays a significant role in emotional and social development.

Confused? Let me break it down.

Think about the way you shift your attention from one object to another with your eyes. For example, suppose you're having coffee with a friend when a hot guy walks through the door. That swift eye movement as you quickly look from your friend to the guy as your fixation point (when you're trying not to be obvious, but failing miserably) is what's known as a saccade, and they're essential to navigating, understanding and interacting with the world around us.

Saccades in healthy individuals are rapid and precise; however, evidence suggests that those with autism spectrum disorders show abnormal eye movement and limited accuracy when viewing complex stimuli.

In a series of trials, individuals with spectrum disorders were asked to follow a visual target with their eyes that appeared in different locations across a screen. The tests were designed to "trick" a person's focus into overshooting the intended target. In healthy individuals, the brain would correctly adjust eye movements as the task repeated itself. Those with ASD, however, continued to miss the mark, suggesting that the sensory motor controls in the cerebellum were impaired.

“These finding suggest that assessing the ability of people to adapt saccade amplitudes is one way to determine whether this function of the cerebellum is altered in ASD,” said Edward Freedman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the URMC Department of Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

“If these deficits do turn out to be a consistent finding in a sub-group of children with ASD, this raises the possibility that saccade adaptation measures may have utility as a method that will allow early detection of this disorder.”

Let's face it: Parents will do anything to protect their kids and if they can't pinpoint a solution, they'll dig deep and find another way. Such is the case for those who suspect their child may have an autism spectrum disorder.

The good news is that early ASD detection is in the works. The bad news is there's no telling how long it will take before this test is available to the general public. Until then, keep your own eye objective to spot early signs of autism—such as failure to make eye contact with you or to follow objects visually, a child's lack of response to their name or familiar voices talking to them, or not using gestures to communicate—and know that you're not alone.

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