A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2017 | Number 3, Volume 31

Eye movements offer clues about symptoms in autism

The eye movements of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may offer insight into their symptoms, a preliminary study suggests. 

In a series of experiments, Edward Freedman and John Foxe tracked the saccades (rapid eye movements) of individuals with ASD as they viewed a target appearing in different locations on a screen. The researchers designed the experiment so that the participants’ focus would frequently “overshoot” the intended target. 

Neurotypical individuals efficiently adjusted their eye movements when they repeated the task. However, individuals with ASD continued to miss the target, suggesting that the sensory motor controls in the cerebellum responsible for eye movement were impaired in this group. 

The researchers note that accurate saccades are crucial for navigating, understanding, and interacting with the world. Thus, they say, the visual abnormalities seen in individuals with ASD may help to explain the communication and social deficits they experience. 

“If these deficits do turn out to be a consistent finding in a sub-group of children with ASD,” Freedman says, “this raises the possibility that saccade adaptation measures may have utility as a method that will allow early detection of this disorder.” They note that saccade adaptation can be accurately measured in children as young as 10 months of age. 

While the researchers’ findings are preliminary, they say their results are consistent with those reported in two other recent studies. In one study, researchers found differences in the rate of adaptation in subjects with high-functioning autism compared to neurotypical participants or those with Asperger’s disorder, as well as a small change in velocity during adaptation in the neurotypical participants but not in those with an ASD. In the other study, researchers found that the rates of adaptation in individuals with ASD were slower than in neurotypical participants.


Citations

“Eye movements, sensorimotor adaptation and cerebellar-dependent learning in autism: toward potential biomarkers and subphenotypes,” Edward G. Freedman and John J. Foxe, European Journal of Neuroscience, July 12, 2017 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Edward G. Freedman, Department of Neuroscience, The Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY 14642, [email protected]

—and— 

“Eye test could help diagnose autism,” news release, University of Rochester Medical Center, July 24, 2017.