JAMA Logo Just few days back we reported that family history may not play a good predictor for the occurrence of mutations predisposing autism or schizophrenia. Now, experts from the University of California share that a fixation on geometric patterns may be linked with autism in children who are as young as 14 months. Eye tracking technology may have the ability to highlight the initial features of autism as it can be used to evaluate individuals at any age or level of functioning.

Scientists examined around 110 kids who were aged between 14 and 42 months. They revealed that among the participants, 37 suffered autism spectrum disorder, 22 with developmental delay and 51 were developing children. The children were shown a one minute movie illustrating moving geometric patterns on one side of a video monitor and kids participating in highly active pursuits like yoga and dancing on the other side.

“It is undeniable that early treatment can have a significant positive impact on the long-term outcome for children with an autism spectrum disorder,” the authors commented. “Early treatment, however, generally relies on the age at which a diagnosis can be made, thus pushing early identification research into a category of high public health priority.”

Experts observed that among kids who were affected with autism around 40 percent spent more than half their viewing time fixated on the geometric images as compared to 1.9 percent of developing toddlers and 9 percent of toddlers with developmental delay. However, all kids did not show this preference. Scientists identified that 100 percent of the children who spent around 69 percent of their time fixated on geometric images had an autism spectrum disorder.

“Overall, toddlers with an autism spectrum disorder as young as 14 months spent significantly more time fixating on dynamic geometric images than other diagnostic groups,” the authors remarked.

It was observed that kids with an autism spectrum disorder who preferred geometric images had a distinct pattern of saccades mainly small and quick movements of both eyes, and lesser saccades overall as compared to other groups. Experts divided the one-minute viewing period into thirds and evaluated it. They identified that children’s preference remained comparatively steady with an average 15.6 percent change in percentage of preference.

“It is undeniable that eye movements guide learning. What an infant chooses to look at provides images and experiences from which to learn and mature,” the authors elucidated. “The impact of reduced social attention in favor of attention to geometry at such an early age in development can only be surmised, but it is thus no surprise that functional magnetic resonance imaging studies of older children and adults with autism often report weak or absent functional activity in brain regions involved in social processing, such as the fusiform, medial frontal lobes, amygdala and cingulate.”

The findings highlight that some toddlers at risk for an autism spectrum disorder begin life with a typical preference for geometric repetition. Experts share that it may apparently be simple to capture this preference with the help of economical methods in mainstream clinical settings like a pediatrician’s office. They also anticipate that infants identified as exhibiting preferences for geometric repetition are essential individuals for future developmental evaluation and possible early treatment.

These findings were published online and will appear in the January 2011 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.