Children with autism may stare at geometric patterns when they are just 14 months old rather than look at kids playing around or doing yoga, say researchers in an article published in Archives of General Psychiatry. Children without autism prefer looking at other kids doing things, the authors added.

Autism is known as a complex developmental disability. Experts believe that Autism presents itself during the first three years of a person’s life. The condition is the result of a neurological disorder that has an effect on normal brain function, affecting development of the person’s communication and social interaction skills. People with autism have issues with non-verbal communication, a wide range of social interactions, and activities that include an element of play and/or banter. ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and can sometimes be referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. A person with an ASD typically has difficulty with social and communication skills. A person with ASD will typically also prefer to stick to a set of behaviors and will resist any major (and many minor) changes to daily activities. (Link: What is autism ?)

The authors write as background information in the article:

It is undeniable that early treatment can have a significant positive impact on the long-term outcome for children with an autism spectrum disorder. 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.

The researchers explain that eye-tracking technology can help assess children at a very early age for level and types of functioning; it has potential as a method for characterizing the early features of autism.

Karen Pierce, Ph.D., and team from the University of California, San Diego, used eye-tracking technology to observe 110 toddlers aged between 14 and 42 months, 37 of them had an ASD (autism spectrum disorder), 22 had some kind of developmental delay and 51 were typically developing toddlers.

The children looked at a one-minute video which was split in two – on one side they could look at geometric shapes, while on the other there were children taking part in highly active pursuits, such as dancing and yoga.

The authors wrote:

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 investigators noticed that:

  • 40% of the children with autism spent over half their viewing time staring at the geometric shapes
  • 1.9% of the typically developing toddlers spent over half their viewing time starting at the geometric shapes
  • 9% of toddlers with developmental delay spent over half their viewing time starting at the geometric shapes
  • 100% of the toddlers who spent over 69% of their time staring at the geometric shapes had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Children with an ASD who stared more at the geometric shapes had unique patterns of saccades – abrupt, rapid, small movements of both eyes, such as people do when the eyes scan a line of print – they also had fewer saccades in general compared to the other children.

When the one-minute video period was divided into thirds and then analyzed, children’s preferences were found to remain comparatively stable, with an average 15.6% change in percentage of preference.

The authors wrote:

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 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.

(conclusion) We believe that it may be easy to capture this preference using relatively inexpensive techniques in mainstream clinical settings, such as a pediatrician’s office. Furthermore, we also believe that infants identified as exhibiting preferences for geometric repetition are excellent candidates for further developmental evaluation and possible early treatment.

“Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism”
Karen Pierce, PhD; David Conant; Roxana Hazin, BS; Richard Stoner, PhD; Jamie Desmond, MPH
Arch Gen Psychiatry. Published online September 6, 2010. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.113

Written by Christian Nordqvist