Young children who are attracted to geometric patterns at an early age may be showing signs of autism, a new study out of the University of California, San Diego suggests.
This fixation was found in autistic children as early as 14 months by researchers using eye-tracking technology. The study focused on 110 children ages 14 to 42 months.
Currently published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry, authors suggest in the background “that early treatment can have a significant positive impact on the long-term outcome for children with an autism spectrum disorder.”
Identified as a solid method for identifying and characterizing early signs of autism, eye-tracking technology was used by researchers with the study because it can be applied as a method for all ages and levels of functioning, according to Karen Pierce, Ph.D. and other colleagues involved in the study.
Of the toddlers studied, 37 were identified as having autism spectrum disorder, 22 with developmental delay and 51 as normal functioning toddlers. The children viewed a one-minute movie depicting moving geometric patterns on one side of a video monitor and children participating in activity such as yoga and dancing on the other side.
“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,” authors suggested.
Specifically, 40 percent of the children with autism spent more than half of their viewing time focusing on the geometric images. In contrast, only nine percent of those with developmental delay focused on the objects for that long. Less than two percent of toddlers falling into the normal development category fixated on the objects.
The study revealed that not all of autistic children showed the preference for geometric shapes. That said, of the children who spent more than 69 percent of the one-minute video fixated on the shapes, all had autism spectrum disorder.
Small rapid movements in both eyes were also identified as characteristics of the children with an autism spectrum disorder who preferred geometric images.
Researchers emphasized in the background the importance of early treatment, which “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.”
“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 write.
“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 remained mostly intact when the researchers divided the viewing up into thirds and analyzed the same group. An average of 15.6 percent change in percentage of preference was found.
“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,” the authors conclude.
The study is scheduled to appear in the January 2011 print issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.
Source: University of California, San Diego