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SALT LAKE CITY -- Researchers have found that a simple response in the eyes from a flash of light may reveal children with autism. Utah parents and researchers hope this preliminary finding will lead to larger, more comprehensive studies.
It sounds too simplistic, but researchers at the University of Missouri in Columbia used a tool routinely used by eye doctors to measure how the pupils of the eye react to a 100-millisecond flash of light. The pupils in children with autism responded significantly slower than those in a control group.
In Utah's autism community, Dr. Brent Petersen of the Carmen Pingree Center says, though cautious, he's impressed with the accuracy of the test.
"In his study, 92.5 percent. If that could hold up, that would be an amazing result -- certainly way, way above the mean for usual findings," Petersen says.
This kind of marker might be especially significant as a screening tool if it could be used on kids, say, at age 2.
"With autistic children, the sooner you know that they are autistic, the sooner you can get treatment for them," says Doug Cash, whose 7-year-old son London is autistic.
Dr. Bill McMahon at the University of Utah says if this is a trait of autism, the marker might lead to the development of rehabilitation techniques designed for younger kids.
"If it could be found that this eye finding is exclusively found in autistic children, it would be a wonderful litmus test of the diagnosis -- because right now we don't have a biological marker," Petersen says.
Research teams might also investigate the mechanism. Petersen says why the eye does what it does would be like tracing a river back to its source, but he has a theory as to what this eye reaction could mean.
"This part of the brain is not telling the other part of the brain fast enough, and that's why the eye is not responding as fast as usual," Petersen says.
But there are a lot of "ifs" right now. Petersen, McMahon, even the study's author in Missouri say this experiment must now be validated in a much broader population of children.