A simple routine test could help diagnose autism in children, according to new study

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Publishing their data in the Neurological Sciences Journal, the team of researchers from Washington State University say they have developed an eye test that could help diagnose children with autism.

The test involves testing the speed at which a child’s eye dilates; eye dilation occurs when the black pupil widens. The way the pupils change in response to light is also known as the pupillary light reflex.

In tests on 36 children whose pupils had dilated, it was found that the pupils of children with autism took longer to return to their original size after the light source which caused the dilation had been removed.

Lead study author Georgina Lynch said: “What we did with this study is we demonstrated the parameters of interest that matter – speed of constriction and return to baseline. We demonstrated it with monocular technology because we knew there is no significant difference between eyes in terms of the pupillary response in autism, unlike in head injury or concussion where it’s common to see unequal pupil sizes.”

What is the aim of the study?

The aim of the study is to provide an easy way for children to be diagnosed with autism so they can receive the support they need; the reason for this is because an early diagnose can have a major impact for the child later on in life.

Lynch, who was driven to undertake the study after observing parents of autistic children, said: “We know that when we intervene as early as ages 18 to 24 months it has a long-term impact on their outcomes.

“Intervening during that critical window could be the difference between a child acquiring verbal speech and staying nonverbal. Yet, after 20 years of trying we still have not changed the average age of diagnosis here in the U.S., which is four years old.”

After the success of the tests, Lynch is now hoping to expand to a larger group of more than 300 children between the ages of two and four and from there to obtain approval for the diagnostic tool she created.

What are the main symptoms of autism?

The main symptoms of autism depend on whether a clinician is diagnosing it in an older or a younger child. The main symptoms in young children are:
• Not responding to their name
• Avoiding eye contact
• Not smiling when you smile at them
• Getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, sound, or smell
• Repetitive movements
• Not talking as much to other children
• Repeating the same phrases.

Meanwhile, in older children symptoms include:
• Not appearing to understand what other children are thinking or feeling
• Finding it hard to say how they feel
• Liking a strict routine and getting upset if that routine changes
• Having a very keen interest in certain activities or subjects
• Getting very upset if someone asks them to do something
• Finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be alone
• Taking things very literally.

While autism can vary between children of different ages, it can also vary between genders. The NHS add that “autistic girls may be quieter, may hide their feelings, and may appear to cope better with social situations”.

As a result, this means autism can sometimes be harder to spot in girls than boys says the NHS, but once a diagnose is obtained, tailored support can begin.

How is autism diagnosed?

While an eye test is still in development in the United States, existing diagnostic processes continue to be used. In the UK, it is possible to book oneself in for an autism assessment.

During an autism assessment a team of specialists in this field will ask about any issues someone may be having and how that person is interacting with other people. They will also ask the individual’s friends and family about how the person taking the assessment interacts with other people.

While it is possible to get an autism assessment, the NHS warns that this isn’t easy adding that “waiting times can also be very long” and so a second opinion from another GP is also recommended

Once diagnosed, there are a variety of ways someone can get support to help them whether its through friends and family or charities such as the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism.

Alongside these channels, there are a bevy of support groups online which can help; these are normally run by autism charities.

However, while social media can be useful, the NHS warn: “Comments on social media and forums are often based on personal experience and should not be taken as advice that would help you or your child.”

Furthermore, children can also receive support from their school or nursery about how to help them cope with the ups and downs of autism.

This could involve counselling or other learning assistance mechanisms which will help the child to excel and enjoy their time during their education and beyond.

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