In a recent study, Dr. Karen Pierce and colleagues identified preference for geometric patterns over social images as a possible early risk factor for the development of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The identification of early signs of ASD is crucial to the advancement of early detection. As research studies have shown time and again, early intervention significantly improves treatment outcomes for children with ASD; however, early intervention heavily depends upon the time at which a child is diagnosed. Thus, it is important that researchers identify and explore early signs of ASD that may be useful in detecting ASD sooner. In the current study, Dr. Pierce and colleagues set out to investigate the reliability of preference for geometric patterns as an early predictor of ASD.
Participants included 110 children, ages 14-42 months. Of the participants, 37 had ASD, 22 had developmental delay, and 51 had typical development. The participants’ preference for geometric patterns versus social images was measured using eye tracking technology. The participants were shown a minute long video, in which the screen was divided in two halves. One half of the screen displayed social images of children dancing and doing yoga while the other half displayed geometric patterns. Eye tracking technology measured how long each participant looked at each half of the screen.
Results revealed that the ASD group spent significantly more time looking at geometric patterns than both the developmental delay group and the typical development group. Of the participants with ASD, 40% spent more than half their viewing time looking at geometric patterns, as compared to 9% of the participants with developmental delay and 1.9% of the participants with typical development. Furthermore, a cutoff score of 68.6% or more viewing time spent looking at geometric patterns was found to positively predict the presence of ASD with 100% accuracy.
Findings reveal preliminary evidence that preference for geometric patterns over social images may be a detectable early risk factor for ASD. Although the eye tracking task was not found to have strong sensitivity in detecting ASD (i.e., 60% of the participants with ASD performed equivalently to the participants with developmental delay and typical development by demonstrating a preference for social images), the eye tracking task was found to have outstanding positive predictive value for accurately detecting the presence of ASD in the proportion of participants who spent 68.6% or more viewing time looking at geometric patterns. Further research investigating preference for geometric patterns as a detectable early predictor of ASD is warranted.
I consider early detection to be among the most important research topics in the field of ASD. Extensive research has demonstrated the significance of early intervention in improving treatment outcomes in children with ASD; unfortunately, the average age of ASD diagnosis still ranges between ages 5 to 7 years. For that reason, I am always glad to read and share research efforts devoted to early identification of ASD.
Pierce, K., Conant, D., Hazin, R., Stoner, R., & Desmond, J. (2011). Preference for geometric patterns early in life as a risk factor for autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68, 101-109.