Wednesday September 27, 2023

Researchers unveil eye-tracking device to speed up autism diagnosis in kids

A trial involving 499 children aged 16-30 months tested the device and was evaluated by specialists

By Web Desk
September 07, 2023
Kids watch a video on a device with their mother. — Unsplash/File
Kids watch a video on a device with their mother. — Unsplash/File

A revolutionary tool that monitors children's eye movements while they watch a video of a social interaction between two children could hasten the diagnosis of autism spectrum condition, according to researchers.

Data from two recent trials, which were concurrently published in JAMA and JAMA Network Open on Tuesday, reveal that the tablet-based gadget can accurately diagnose illness in kids between the ages of 16 and 30 months.

According to the researchers, the device tracks the eye movements of a video viewer 120 times each second.

As preschoolers ordinarily concentrate on the interaction while autistic toddlers pay attention to other parts of the film, it enables specialists to monitor the social information that kids are absorbing on a moment-by-moment basis, giving the results in 30 minutes.

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

Jones who is also a scientific co-founder and an adviser at EarliTec Diagnostics, which makes the devices, has said that the shortage of experts means that most speciality centres have long waiting lists, NBC reported.

"Identifying children with autism before age 3 is really important," he said. "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 the younger children’s brains are more “plastic,” meaning they can change more easily, researchers revealed.

According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, screening children for autism at 18 months and 24 months is recommended. Moreover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average age of diagnosis is a little under 4.5 years.

The research published in JAMA Network Open describes the initial testing of the device on 1,089 children whose average age was 22 months, while the JAMA paper reported on a trial performed at six of the country’s leading autism centres.

A trial involving 499 children aged 16-30 months tested the device and was evaluated by specialists. Both studies found the device's diagnostic abilities to be comparable to those of specialists, marking the end of 20 years of research by Jones and his team.

On June 29, the Food and Drug Administration approved the EarliPoint Evaluation device for use as a diagnostic tool for kids undergoing professional evaluations. 

The technology is currently being investigated by researchers to see if paediatricians and primary care doctors may use it to test a larger population of kids.

The Marcus Autism Centre is using EarliPoint, and three other facilities are negotiating contracts. Although no other tool is being used by clinicians to assist in the diagnosis of the illness, eye tracking is being employed in other research to understand more about autism, according to Jones.

The technology's goal is to detect autistic children by noticing their apparent lack of interest in social interactions.

Children often pick up social skills by seeing the interactions of those around them. Children who aren't paying much, if any, attention to the kid-to-kid interaction in the video are identified by the EarliPoint.

Children may never learn proper behaviour if they aren't learning it through observation.

When children are diagnosed with autism, they can receive therapy that, in accordance with a set of steps, breaks down social interactions and behaviours and explicitly teaches autistic children what typically developing children pick up without having to be explicitly taught, according to specialists.