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DURHAM, N.C. — Scientists have developed a new app which can detect autism using just a mobile phone. The app uses short films and gaze detection technology to pick up on whether children look more at objects or human characters, a tell-tale sign of the condition.

While the technology is in early stages, the Duke University team behind it believe it could be easily scaled up and used on any smartphone or tablet.

“We know that babies who have autism pay attention to the environment differently and are not paying as much attention to people,” says co-senior author Dr. Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, and co-senior author of a study, in a statement. “We can track eye gaze patterns in toddlers to assess risk for autism. This is the first time that we’ve been able to provide this type of assessment using only a smart phone or tablet. This study served as a proof-of-concept, and we’re very encouraged.”

Dawson and colleagues, including lead author Dr. Zhuoqing Chang, began working on the app several years ago. But in this latest version, the researchers strategically designed movies that would allow them to assess a young child’s preference for looking at objects more than at people.

One movie, for example, shows a cheerful woman playing with a spinning-top. In the film, she dominates one side of the screen while the top she is spinning is on the other side.

The study shows that toddlers without autism scanned the entire screen throughout the video, focusing more often on the woman. Toddlers who were later diagnosed with autism, however, more often focused on the side of the screen with the toy. Another movie was similarly designed and showed a man blowing bubbles.

Eyes may be the windows to autism

Eye-tracking has been used previously to assess gaze patterns in people with autism. But this has required special equipment and expertise and analysis. This app-based test, which takes less than 10 minutes to administer and uses the front-facing camera to record the child’s behavior, only needs a tablet or smartphone, making it readily accessible to primary care clinics and useable in the home.

“This was the technical achievement many years in the making,” says Chang, a postdoctoral associate in Duke’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It required our research team to design the movies in a specific way to elicit and measure the gaze patterns of attention using only a handheld device. It’s amazing how far we’ve come to achieve this ability to assess eye gaze without specialized equipment, using a common device many have in their pocket.”

To test the device, the researchers included 993 toddlers ages 16-38-months-old in the study. The average child was 21 months, which is when autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often identified. Forty of the toddlers were diagnosed with ASD using gold-standard diagnostic methods.

Dawson says additional studies with infants as young as six-months-old are ongoing. These trials are attempting to see whether the app-based assessment could identify differences in children who are later diagnosed with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders during the first year of life.

“We hope that this technology will eventually provide greater access to autism screening, which is an essential first step to intervention,” says Dawson. “Our long-term goal is to have a well-validated, easy-to-use app that providers and caregivers can download and use, either in a regular clinic or home setting. We have additional steps to go, but this study suggests it might one day be possible.”

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.

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