ATLANTA — Groundbreaking research at Georgia Tech could be paving the way for the early detection of autism.
Researchers are using special gaze-tracking glasses to measure eye contact in children, a lack of which is often a tell-tale sign of autism.
The X-ray-like glasses are now being tested at Georgia Tech. The hope is that one day, they can show early warning signs that might help others determine whether someone has developmental delays such as autism.
"Unfortunately in the U.S., the average age of diagnosis is somewhere between 4 and 5, so there is a need to move that down earlier so that early intervention can have a greater impact," Tech professor Gregory Abowd told Channel 2's Fred Blankenship.
Researchers are hoping for earlier detection and therefore earlier intervention. To make that happen, Abowd and his team at Georgia Tech's child study lab have spent the last year and a half recruiting families with children between 1 and 2 ½ years old for research. Researchers use facial-analysis software in combination with the gaze-tracking glasses.
"It is automatically going to say where am I looking, but in addition it's got a camera that's pointing out and recording effectively some of what I see," Abowd said, demonstrating the software.
Though parents may not be able to identify a problem, clinicians can draw some conclusions after hours of watching video from the glasses.
"The nice thing about a computer is that it doesn't get tired. It's not in a bad mood. It didn't sleep poorly. So I think there is potential for technology to really bring in this consistency and reliability that sometimes falls away when you have fallible humans," research scientist Agata Rozaga said.
Another tool being used is a pair of sensors that can be worn around a child's wrists and ankles. They track temperature, hand movements and the level of arousal of the individual based on the conductivity across the skin.
The team uses those criteria to identify aggressive or disruptive behavior, which helps determine whether treatments targeting certain behaviors are working.
Researchers said they hope the technology will eventually be used at pediatric offices and in homes, but they want to stress that eye contact is just one marker for autism.
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