Autism is typically confirmed as a diagnosis when a child is between 2.5 to 4 years old. In a recent study conducted by the University of Missouri, earlier diagnosis of Autism in a toddler may well be possible using 3D facial imaging technique. This, many believe, would significantly help in developing an early Autism treatment plan for the child.
Current Challenges in Autism Diagnosis
Accurate Autism diagnosis, till date, remains a challenge for many pediatrician and developmental psychologist. They rely heavily on a series of tests like these to underpin certain behavioral traits in the subject, and subsequently, cross-match them against the common symptoms of the disorder spectrum. Additionally, some of the symptoms are only visible at a later stage and since each child grows differently, it is hard to determine the exact type of Autism in the child. This inhibited earlier interventions, thereby reducing the effectiveness of treatment.
How the Study was Conducted
Researchers at the University of Missouri have studied and collected crucial indicative data on facial expressions that are common to Autistic children across varied age groups. The team has compiled samples of at least 62 pre-adolescent male children confirmed with ASD. The facial landmarks were examined using 3D stereo-photogrammetric and modeled using statistical approaches.
The images were then screened and matched against existing clinical, neurological and cognitive patterns of autism symptoms. The summary of the analysis showed a strong correlation of the captured expression sets to the documented evidences.
Judith Miles, Professor of Child Health Genetics @ MU Thompson Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders “Treating Autistic children over the years, I noticed that a fair proportion of those diagnosed with autism share similar facial characteristics. The pattern was too evident to be just a coincidence. Let’s say, the patterns were not abnormal – they (the facial patterns) were just analogous and shared similarities, much like the expression of siblings ”
Though it is the first time such a study has been conducted at this scale for children with Autism, it is important to note that the emergence of this 3D Facial Imaging technology is not a breakthrough in medical science. Using facial recognition algorithms to diagnose or predict neurobehavioral disorders has been used in other areas as well (anxiety and depression being the most common examples).
How Can it Help?
The biggest advantage of an earlier confirmed Autism diagnosis is the possibility of an earlier intervention, thereby maximizing the effectiveness of treatment. It has been clinically proven that a human mind is most elastic during the first 2 to 4 formative years of a child where the learning potential is at its peak. Behavioral and Learning disability Therapists often use it to their advantage when it comes to devising the right therapy for an Autistic child.
Still a Long Way to Go..
Though the findings of the research are quite encouraging, it is still at an inception stage. Parents would need to wait for a while for this Autism diagnosis technique to be approved by FDA and available for commercial use by doctors and therapists. Some of the key shortcomings and/or improvement areas for this study, that are likely to be addressed in a near future, are:
- The study has so far been limited to a small subset of boys (62 to be exact). The findings need to be applied and matched against a much wider sample of boys with Autism
- Girls with Autism differ significantly from boys and have a much lower prevalence (only 1 out of 4 children with Autism are girls). Additionally, girls are diagnosed at a much later age (sometimes not until their teens). For this technology to be really effective, it needs to diagnose Autism in girls at an earlier age as well
- Use of traditional screening techniques like Autism Tests for Toddlers is still more effective.
- The test subjects were mainly confined to children with Classical Autism. Other forms of Autism, like Asperger’s, ADHD, Sensory Integration Disorder, Rett’s Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) are much harder to diagnose.