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The Goal of the Study
The goal of the Early Autism Study is the development of a new diagnostic and screening tool for use with very young children who are at risk for autism, by virtue of having a close relative on the autism spectrum. There is a pressing need for early, reliable diagnostic and screening tools for autism. Currently, an autism diagnosis typically happens at the age of 3 years or 4 years, and may happen much later for some people. Earlier diagnosis and earlier treatment consistently leads to improved prognosis in autism, but current diagnostic tools are not reliable before the age of two.
Why Measure Social Development?
Some of the most profound deficits in autism are the social cognitive deficits. We know that typically developing children achieve very early social milestones. We know that children are interested in faces as early as 2 months of age and in particular are interested in eyes, when scanning a face. Babies have a preference for direct gaze over averted gaze, which is present even in newborns, although in newborns the preference is only found if the head is upright, and the face is in a straight-forward orientation. Very young children pay attention to the eyes, and their attention is directed by adult eye gaze. Infants as young as 3 months shift their attention in the direction of adult eye gaze. By 6 months of age infants begin to look in the direction of gaze if signaled by both eyes and head turning and if the object of interest is already within their visual field. Infants can recognize animate motion and even goal directed motion based on the motion of simple geometric figures on a computer screen.
A Longitudinal Study
This study is a longitudinal study in which full siblings of individuals with autism, and a control group of low-risk babies, are tested from three months of age in order to identify early social perceptual and social cognitive delays that predict later autism diagnoses. Participants visit the lab four times in their first year, at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and 12 months of age, in order to participate in the predictive measures. These predictive tasks involve social stimuli, all presented visually, while we measure whether participants’ eye direction is preferentially drawn to the social stimuli. Participants then return for the outcomes measure when they reach their second birthday. The outcome measure is again a measure of social interest and communication, but to make it age appropriate, they get to interact with the experimenter and play with some toys.
The Measures Are Objective
This study is designed to create a fast and objective screening tool for early autism that might be administered by a technician, rather than a clinician. An infant spends about 10 minutes in data collection (in each of 4 visits). All measures in the current study are objective, as they are based on eye direction as measured by an eye tracker. In addition, because this new method does not rely on clinical judgments, it does not demand an hour or more of a clinician’s time to administer. A technician could administer the test, conceivably making this tool more widely available, and allowing for many more children to be screened. In contrast, other attempts to identify early autism involve a relatively lengthy play interview with children, and include measures that rely, at least in part, on subjective and clinical judgments of the researcher such as orienting to name, social smiling, imitation, and social interest and affect.
Why Are We Interested in Siblings of Kids with Autism?
Because autism is heritable, we can identify children who may be at risk for autism because of the existence of autism in the family. Siblings who are born into families already affected by autism have a higher probability of developing autism than the general population, so given a large enough sample, we should be able to study autistic development in the first year. In this study, infants are either siblings of children who already have an autism diagnosis, or else they serve as control participants. You can sign up to participate in either group, depending on who is in your family!
Making a Difference!
One of the most urgent clinical needs for individuals and families dealing with autism is the development of a diagnostic instrument to detect autism before the first birthday. The goal of this longitudinal project is to develop a fast and objective screening tool that can identify autism in the first year of life. To this end, the goal of this project is to find reliable early indicators of autism based on eye direction in response to social stimuli as early as 3 months of age, and then use these eye direction measures to predict later autistic symptoms. This study is expected to have a profound effect on people with autism, on future generations of people with autism, and on parents and family members of people with autism.