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A Simple Eye Test Could Help Catch Autism Early

This test could identify children with autism spectrum disorder and allow earlier intervention and treatment. Here's why that's so important.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S. There are many theories as to why the rate keeps rising, but one thing is certain—early detection is essential to improving affected individuals' outcomes. Fortunately, a simple eye test may help physicians catch the disorder earlier than traditional methods.

An article published in "European Journal of Neuroscience" describes the test, which measures rapid eye movements.

John Foxe, PhD, director of the University of Rochester Medical Center Del Monte Neuroscience Institute, co-authored the study.

He told the University of Rochester Medical Center, "These findings build upon a growing field of research that show that eye movement could serve as a window into a part of the brain that plays a role in a number of neurological and development disorders, such as autism."

Approximately one in every 68 children born in the U.S. has ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disorder affect people's lives differently.

Patients with some serious forms of of autism suffer a complete lack of speech development. Others with milder forms may experience difficulty making eye contact or have tendencies to use language repetitively.

Early detection allows parents to address problems and more quickly bond with their children.

Many of the symptoms of ASD don't surface until a child grows older (for example, lack of interest in relationships with peers). Because of this, many children with ASD do not receive an early diagnosis and in turn lose out on opportunities to make significant gains in IQ, communication, and social interaction.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, led a five-year study of early intervention for 18- to 30-month-old children with ASD. Children who received 20 hours a week of intervention after their early diagnosis had an improvement of 18 IQ points as opposed to children who received less specialized intervention.

"Parental involvement and use of these strategies at home during routine and daily activities are likely important ingredients of the success of the outcomes and their child's progress," Dawson told Autism Speaks.

She went on to say, "The study strongly affirms the positive outcomes of early intervention and the need for the earliest possible start."

The new eye test would be another tool to diagnose and start intervention early.

To some, it seems strange that eye movement could be an indication of ASD. However, the part of the brain called the cerebellum is involved with emotion, cognition, and motor control, which is how eye movement comes to be a measurable element of cerebellar function.

Scientists still don't understand the exact relationship between the cerebellum and autism, but there is growing evidence that people with ASD have cerebellums that are different from those of their peers without ASD.

Foxe's eye test helps identify children who cannot perform rapid, precise, and accurate eye movements. This indicates a problem with the cerebellum, which may mean those children are more likely to have ASD.

Foxe's test has the potential to identify children with ASD at a younger age, which is a great achievement alone. But the research also adds to the growing body of knowledge about how the cerebellum of someone with ASD works differently from the cerebellum of someone who does not show symptoms of the disorder.

As autism rates continue to climb, researchers are beginning to understand more about the disorder. Developing financially accessible, minimally invasive tests to diagnose ASD will lead to earlier intervention. This eye test has the potential to yield huge improvements in the lives of autism patients and those who love and care for them.

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