International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): The Development of a Fast and Objective Tool for Identifying Early Autism

The Development of a Fast and Objective Tool for Identifying Early Autism

Friday, May 16, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
11:30 AM
M. D. Rutherford , Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Background: 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, but earlier diagnosis of autism is associated with an improved prognosis.  Objectives: Here I report a longitudinal study designed to measure early social perceptual and social cognitive development in children in the first year of life, based on children’s behavioral responses to faces, emotions, eye gaze, and animate motion. Methods: 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 I measured whether participants’ eye direction was preferentially drawn to the social stimuli. Participants then return for the outcomes measure when they reach their second birthday. Infants are either siblings of children who already have an autism diagnosis, or serve as control participants. Results: A group of young infants at risk for autism can be distinguished from a control group at 6 months, at 9 months and at 12 months of age, using fast and objective measures. Conclusions: This is the youngest age at which clear evidence of autistic development has been documented in a controlled laboratory situation. This tool is designed to be objective and free from reliance on clinical judgment. The data collection took just 10 minutes (on each of four visits) and was meant to be fast and easy for participants and administrators.  By developing a fast and objective screening tool for early autism diagnosis, the goal is to create a tool that can be used widely to identify children who will later have an autism diagnosis.