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Wednesday 20th June 2018

Cartoons 'help diagnose autism'

30th March 2009

The approach of experts to the detection of autism is changing with new research on what grabs the visual attention of toddlers.


The findings could help autism researchers to detect autism in young babies, much earlier than they are currently able.

Lead researcher Ami Klin of Yale University said that the earlier pediatricians are able to detect autism and intervene, the more likely they are to optimise the child's outcome.

He said he hoped vulnerabilities for autism could be detected as early as possible, so as to capitalise on the malleability of infant brains.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that for the first time, a study had pinpointed what grabbed the attention of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders.

He said that, in addition to the potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research held promise for the development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders.

The new study, funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health, was first inspired by a 15-month-old girl with autism.

Researchers showed the girl cartoon videos of a stick figure.

In some of the videos, the image was upside down, though the figure kept moving and talking as if it were a human being.

The toddler displayed a relative lack of interest in the videos until the stick figure began to clap its hands and sing the “pat-a-cake” nursery rhyme.

Researchers were not sure why the girl was not interested in the video regardless of what it was doing, since other children were.

They realised that what they were seeing was a pattern indicative of the early stages of autism, and that the girl was more interested in noticing synchronous movements than in what was happening to the figure.

In further experiments involving a wide array of developmentally challenged children as well as autistic ones, the researchers studied a larger group of 2-year-olds and found that autistic children again seemed to notice audio-visual synchronicity more than the others.

After a baby is born, doctors expect it to prefer watching the movements of its parents as part of its earliest lesson in human relationships.

Children such as the ones Klin’s researchers learned to identify are typically more interested in simultaneous events that don’t have any social meaning, also called nonsocial synchronicities.

Examples of nonsocial synchronicities would include stones falling from peoples’ hands, or balls coming together and making sounds.

A grant has been awarded to Klin, Jones, and their fellow researchers for their work on autism.

Their goal is to find out how early autistic children display these differences.

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