Using children’s eye movements to diagnose, characterise and treat autism spectrum disorder

Professor Steven Dakin
University of Auckland 

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition affecting around 1 in 68 children in New Zealand; about 14,000 children. An estimated $2billion per year is spent on the health of NZ children and adults with ASD.

ASD is often associated with cognitive, language and social deficits. If neglected, or unnoticed, these complications can become worse, precipitating further difficulties as children grow older.

Research has shown that early diagnosis and subsequent treatment can greatly improve long-term outcomes. However, the condition is complex, and there are still so many unknowns as to when, and how, it manifests in children.


What is this project hoping to achieve?

Prof Steven Dakin is the Head of School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Auckland, and is a pre-eminent expert in tracking eye movements to assist in diagnosing and treating child health disorders. It has long been known that children with ASD are prone to avoiding looking at faces, and might be more likely to fixate on geometric shapes. Current technology is capable of accurately measuring where children are looking, by tracking their eye movements while they look at short animated movies.

Prof Dakin will use this technology to help more accurately diagnose those with ASD while also attempting to treat these children by training their eyes to look where a typically developing (TD) child would be more inclined to look.

Hidden behind the simple task of watching a movie, are complex demands placed on a child’s cognitive abilities. Understanding movies require that children keep track of many things: from visually tracking people and objects in dynamic complex scenes through to determining people’s intentions and likely behaviour from their facial expressions, where they are looking etc. Where children look in a scene can be revealing about what they do and what they do not understand and can provide a rich source of data about how the child interacts with natural and engaging environments. Prof Dakin and his team believe that this data can be revealing of limitations in specific cognitive processes.

This study consists of three phases: Phase 1 will see data collected on typically developing children to establish what might be a ‘normal’ fixation pattern when watching movies; Phase 2 will capture the same data in children with already diagnosed ASD; the final phase will be a proof of principle intervention to attempt to modify the fixation patterns of 15 children with ASD.

There is great potential for this work to improve diagnosis as well as have widespread and considerable impact as a novel behavioural therapy for this disorder.