A team of Duke University researchers have developed new autism-screening software that can track and record infants’ activity during videotaped tests. On one hand, the procedure is non-invasive, accurate and could be immediately useful. On the other, some parents may prefer a clinician over a computer when it comes to their kid’s autism diagnosis. But what if the computer was just as good at spotting behavioral markers as an expert?
With early detection in mind, the study focuses on three behavioral tests that can help identify autism in very young children. (See the video above.) The three tests involve drawing the infant’s attention to a moving toy in various ways and looking for any delay in his or her eye tracking, as well as eye contact with the play partner. Sans software, these tests have their drawbacks, explains the study’s release:
In all of the tests, the person administering them isn’t just controlling the stimulus, he or she is also counting how long it takes for the child to react—an imprecise science at best. The new program allows testers to forget about taking measurements while also providing more accuracy, recording reaction times down to tenths of a second.
The researchers’ target audience is general practitioners, who could benefit from the software’s automatic analysis of a child's eye gaze, walking patterns or motor behaviors. If it detects any red flags, the doctor could then refer the family to a (human) specialist for further testing.
But starting later this year, the preliminary tests may not even need a human to hold the toy. With a new tablet application on the horizon, any parent, teacher or clinician could simply download the app and let the child test themselves.