How Examining Eye Movements Can Help Diagnose Autism

How Examining Eye Movements Can Help Diagnose Autism

When it comes to treating autism, the earlier that a diagnosis can be accurately provided, the better off the patient will be in the long-term. While some members of the medical community continue to devote research to the treatment of autism, and while that research is undoubtedly invaluable, learning how to diagnose is equally important, especially when it comes to successful treatment. A recent study completed by a team at the University of Rochester’s Medical Center has focused on using tools to develop new methods for early detection.

More about the study

Tools that measure the movement of the eyes aren’t new, but their potential usefulness when it comes to diagnosing autism are. Additionally, the results of these tests may reveal more underlying information about autism than researchers had previously understood.

A study that was recently conducted at the University of Rochester Medical Center was designed to test the acuity of eye movement in people with autism. The test specifically studied how well the saccades of those with autism functioned. Saccades are the rapid eye movements humans make when shifting their visual attention quickly from one object to another.

Saccades are tested in individuals by quickly flashing objects on and then off a screen. When someone tries to follow the object, his or her brain will tend to overshoot the actual location of the object and then have to correct itself. The flashing objects appear and disappear in a pattern that loops several times. In people without autism, within a few loops, the brain can learn these patterns of rapid movement so that the individual is no longer overshooting the moving objects but looks at them directly when they appear. While individuals with regular brain-eye function adjust their saccades during the test, researchers found that people with autism do not. Rather than adjusting to increase visual accuracy, people with autism continue overshooting the moving objects even after they’ve viewed multiple loops of the pattern.

The study’s results

Researchers may have learned a lot more about autism from this simple visual test than it appears on the surface. At first glance, the results are fairly simple: People with autism don’t learn to correct for overshooting visual activity the same way that people without autism do. While these results are relatively simple, what they may reveal about the brain could have more important implications than is first apparent. Regardless of what the data may imply about the nature of autism, the results of this study certainly present a new development when it comes to diagnosing autism.

The brain-eye connection

The connection between functioning vision and the mysteries of the brain is much deeper than scientists currently understand, and that’s part of why it’s been a big source of research in recent years. Obviously, the connection between the eyes and the brain contributes to how we interact with the world. The brain uses the eyes as receptors to fill out a picture of the world around us and in turn we adjust our actions and responses to this world. How well or how poorly an individual’s saccades function certainly reveals something about how accurately and how rapidly he or she is interpreting the world, but it may reveal more than that.

The cerebellum is the area of the brain that controls saccades as well as motor functioning. While this control is important for lots of different things humans do, especially with regard to the movement of the body, the cerebellum also plays a key role in the emotional and cognitive functioning of individuals. What exactly the cerebellum does with regard to controlling or managing emotions isn’t totally understood yet, but based on this study and others of its kind, researchers are increasingly confident that there is a connection.

Saccades and autism

One of the benefits of the rapid eye movement test is its precision. When individuals participate in the test, machines are tracking and taking note of incredibly minute movements. While the data collected is still being study and interpreted, it is at least possible to collect the data. Because researchers are increasingly confident that a connection exists between saccades and autism, physicians may be able to use the rapid eye movement test to identify and diagnose autism at a much earlier stage.

Approximately one percent of the world’s population is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. The symptoms of ASD can be difficult to recognize, especially in children at a young age. Even though it can be difficult to diagnose autism, countless studies and cases have shown that an early diagnosis is invaluable when it comes to the long-term success of treatment. Because the rapid eye movement test relies on such precise data, researchers and physicians can use it combined with several other tests to identify autism in individuals at an early stage.

The importance of early diagnosis

Researchers and physicians have noted that beginning treatment at age 2-3 versus ages 6-7 can have a major impact on how well a child develops and learns coping strategies. This data alone is enough to motivate the medical community to find ways to diagnose autism at an earlier stage. If motivation were the only roadblock keeping physicians from diagnosing autism in young children, then we’d be well on our way to an ideal scenario; unfortunately, motivation isn’t the biggest problem.

Up to this point a child’s behavioral patterns have been the primary source of data for diagnosing him or her with autism. Using behavior to provide a diagnosis presents a host of complications. For starters, young children in the 2-3-year bracket don’t always present behavior patterns that differ enough from children without autism to identify them as autistic. Even as the children get older, it can be difficult to determine accurately if the behavior that a child presents is actually due to autism, or other factors. The subjectivity of behavior based diagnoses often prevents physicians from being able to diagnose a child with autism at a young age. Because the diagnosis can’t be provided at a young age, treatment can’t begin either.

Whether a child has autism or not, the early years are key in establishing cognitive and behavioral patterns that will impact them for the rest of their lives. If a child has autism but is undiagnosed, then caretakers and educators may be establishing patterns that don’t work for the child and won’t be helpful in the long-term. Alternatively, if physicians can use new methods such as the rapid eye movement test to diagnose autism when a child is still young, then that child may be taught coping strategies that will work for them and serve them better for years to come.

Final thoughts

The number of diagnosed cases of autism has increased dramatically in recent years. If the medical community is going to be able to provide the care and treatment that these people need, then new information will need to continue to be gathered. While understanding the nature of autism itself and learning more about what causes autism are incredibly important areas for research, learning how to spot autism early on is also key in successfully applying these principles.
Recent studies focusing on the connection between the eyes and the brain such as the rapid eye movement test conducted at UR Medical Center are giving researchers new insights into the condition. With more precise and less objective symptoms such as eye movement at their disposal, physicians may be able to successfully diagnose autism at earlier ages and therefore provide more successful treatment.