Scientists design an app that helps detect autism in toddlers

Autism is a disorder that affects how a person communicates and interacts with others, therefore, it’s quite difficult to notice in young children who are still developing social skills. This presents a challenge for parents and caregivers who want to be able to address their child’s needs as early as possible.

To aid in early therapy, scientists at Duke University have developed a new iOS app that can help detect autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in babies and toddlers.

Previous research revealed that babies or toddlers who are likely to develop ASD pay more attention to objects than people, inspiring the team at Duke University to design a gaze-tracking app that determines the overall direction of the young viewer’s gaze as they watch videos of people playing with toys.

There have been other ASD diagnostic systems that use eye-tracking technology, but this is the first to use electronic devices like smartphones that are easily accessible to everyday consumers. To use the app, short video clips are presented to the toddler in which a person plays with something such as a spinning top or a pinwheel. The person is always on one side of the screen while the toy is on the other, making it easier to detect if the viewer’s gaze is more focused on the people in the videos or on the toys.

So far, the app has been tested on just under 1,000 toddlers with an average age of 21 months, and the results have been promising. The scientists report that they will continue to perform validation studies to refine the app before making it widely available.

The team’s long-term goal is to develop technology that will provide greater access to accurate tests for early autism screening that can be easily downloaded and administered by caregivers, whether they are at home or in a clinic. By making the diagnostic tool available at the touch of a button, guardians who do not have access to medical resources can begin the diagnostic process at home before paying for professional therapeutic tools. By diagnosing ASD early on, parents and caregivers are given more time to equip and educate themselves so that they can best support their children.

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