Breakthrough study solves key autism puzzle

A recent study from the University of Vermont shines new light on autism and how to spot telltale signs of the disorder.

Scientists’ understanding of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, has come a long way in recent years, but many aspects of ASD remain a puzzling mystery. According to a report from UPI, researchers from the University of Vermont tracked children’s’ eye movements during conversations to shed new light on signs of autism as well as effective treatments.

Scientists employed advanced eye tracking technologies to monitor the movements of 18 autistic children’s eyes. They also monitored the movements of a group of 19 children without ASD as a control. The children were between the ages of 6 and 12.

The findings suggested that children with ASD were more likely to focus on a person’s mouth as they spoke instead of making and holding eye contact. Children with ASD were particularly likely to focus on a person’s mouth when the subject grew emotional in nature, such as what made the children sad or frightened.

According to the study’s lead author, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders Tiffany Hutchins from the University of Vermont, “What you talk about really matters for children with ASD. You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.
The scientists also found that the more severe the case of autism, the more a child’s eyes drifted towards a speaker’s mouth. They showed that this behavior was more common among children with poor verbal and intellectual ability, as well as in children with limited executive function.

While the study offers new clues into how to look for the signs of autism, it remains yet to be seen how the findings can inform new treatment strategies. The link between emotional subject matter and a strain on executive function may be a good place to start with future studies, and researchers are planning on using the findings to examine new speech therapy treatments for children suffering from ASD.

A press release from the University of Vermont describing the details of the study can be found here.

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