The Eyes: a Tool for Detecting Autism?

Will it one day be possible to detect autism in the first months of life simply through visual contact? Given that autistic troubles are defined by social communication problems, more and more researchers are convinced that autism is detectable quite early in life simply by observing basic cerebral and sensorial functions.

By Alexandra Bachot

That’s the conclusion of a Swedish study conducted by Uppsala University published by the scholarly journal Nature Communications. Their research indicates that in infancy, children who are later diagnosed with autism react more strongly to sudden changes in light. As they age, these autistic kids have weaker reactions to changes in light than their non-autistic counterparts. In particular, this reflex corresponds to the pupils’ response when exposed to changes in the intensity of light, as measured by how much the pupils contract or dilate.

To conduct this experiment, researchers studied the reaction in changes of light among babies 10 months old, and followed these children until age 3, when a diagnosis of autism was made. Several conclusions are noteworthy.

Children diagnosed as autistic at age 3 contracted their pupils more at age 9 to 10 months than children not diagnosed as autistic. The scientists noted a correlation between the pupils’ contractions and the severity of the autism diagnosis. The stronger the pupil restriction, the greater the autism symptoms at follow-up.

Could other senses, like hearing, touch and taste be equally sensitive among the autistic? “It’s probably a phenomenon that affects the whole sensorial process and not just vision,” says Terje Falck-Ytter, co-author of the study.

Researchers linked this to difficulty in establishing eye-to-eye contact, one of the characteristics of autism. “We found a correlation between the pupils’ contraction and difficulties in social communication that the young child has afterward, including in visual contact,” Falck-Ytter says.

If for the moment it’s too soon to apply these results in a clinical context, it’s not out of bounds to use this method to facilitate the early detection of this syndrome so that care can begin.    

First seen on Raymond Viger’s blog, December 7th, 2020

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