Eye-tracking tech could make earlier autism detection - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Eye-tracking tech could make earlier autism detection

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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -

"As a parent you know something is wrong," Julian Maha said.

Maha says at around 16 months, it was clear something was wrong with his first-born child.

"He had lack of eye contact was the first big thing. The second thing was whenever you call his name he would pretend he would not hear you. It was almost like he was deaf," said Maha.

There were several tests performed on him, but it wasn't until age four that his son was diagnosed with autism.

"As a parent when you have his whole future mapped out, especially your first child, first-born, you have to take a step back and re-evaluate," Maha said.

Four years old is the average age a child is diagnosed, but that could change. In a new study by Emory University, researchers used specialized eye-tracking technology to measure how babies look at and respond to things with their eyes.

The experts found that signs of declining eye fixation showed up as early as two to six-months-old in babies that were later diagnosed with autism.

"It's definitely an interesting finding," Dr. Sarah O'Kelly said.

Dr. O'Kelly is with the Department of Psychology at UAB and she says she's skeptical about the study.

"I think it's a lot more to come to clarify whether this type of procedure could be used as an efficient, reliable, valid screening tool. We do know that eye contact is one of the initial symptoms parents do note, but it's only one of several that show up in first year of life," Dr. O'Kelly said.

Maha's son is six years old now. Maha says through a lot of therapy his son is doing very well and communicating better. He has even started kindergarten, but Maha knows an earlier detection would have made a big difference.

"I think early detection is a huge key in helping kids with autism reach their full potential," Maha added.

Dr. O'Kelly did say maybe this kind of eye tracking technology could be used in the future. Parents should keep in mind this is specialized technology that these researchers used in their study. So you shouldn't necessarily be concerned if your baby doesn't respond to certain things with their eyes. It is natural for a baby to look around at things going on around them.

There is a local group that's hoping to help parents with early detection. Folks with the group called "Kulture City" want to build a facility in Birmingham that will provide free therapy for autistic children and even scholarships.

The fundraiser is Thursday, November 7 at Service Tech Heating and Air located at 441 University Blvd. It's from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and requires a $10 donation. There will be food, drinks and a live band.

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