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Eye exams potential new tool in diagnosing autism

Moscow-Pullman Daily News (ID) - 10/27/2015

Oct. 27--The results of a recent study at Washington State University may lead to a new tool in diagnosing autism -- a simple eye exam.

Speech-language pathologist Georgina Lynch conducted the study during the past year with the help of researchers Stephen James and Nancy Potter.

Lynch said she has a 17-year history of working clinically with individuals with autism of varying degrees of severity.

"I have worked with children with autism at all ages and all levels across the lifespan. I've worked with those who are first diagnosed when they're 2 or 3 years old all the way up to those who are 20 years old or older as they're entering the adult world," she said. "The visual system plays into all of this. How the eyes process visual information is very important to how we develop language."

It was through this work she noticed something that led to the beginning of the study.

"It was apparent to me that we were seeing a hyper-aroused system. The pupils of kids with autism appear to be continually dilated and it appeared to have something do with the central nervous system," Lynch said. "As a speech language pathologist I was very interested in understanding this relationship between brain function for the visual system and language."

The pilot study was funded by WSU in 2013 and ran from 2014-15 with the first presentation of results in May.

The team conducted the study using static eye tracking equipment. Participants used a chin rest while infrared cameras calibrated the shape and size of their pupils and recorded responses as visible stimuli was presented, Lynch said.

"As we flashed light into each eye, the eye tracking equipment would take a recording of the change in diameter in response to the light," she said. "The results show that there was a delayed response to the light. Kids with autism, their eyes tend to stay dilated longer. It took longer for those eyes to constrict in response to the light."

Lynch said the team was looking for physiological markers of autism.

"People are also looking at MRIs, however, this is obviously less invasive," Lynch said.

Autism is diagnosed through an analysis of behavior and development by pediatricians, neurologists and psychologists, as there is no medical test that offers results.

"Diagnosing autism requires a multidisciplinary team," Lynch said. "We would never use this in isolation but it could hold potential as a biomarker -- physiologic marker to support the behavioral observation."

The yearlong study, which examined 24 children ages 10-17, both with and without autism, has the potential of becoming a diagnostic tool, she said.

"It's an ongoing project and it was a seed grant with the idea that we're going to expand this research to larger clinical pools," Lynch said.

The study as it stands today reveals only preliminary data, she said, as it was a pilot study based on a small sample of autistic individuals.

"There is a lot of research yet to be done to look at the reach of this tool," Lynch said. "There's other age levels and other severity levels, but it holds promise."

Shanon Quinn can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to


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