Autism is a complex disorder that can have any number of presentations. That is, any two people with Autism may display a wide range of characteristics. To add to the mystery, researchers and professionals working in the field have little idea as to what causes or predicts the disorder. What we do know is that Autism is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, though the range of impairment in these areas is fairly broad. Researchers in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine are making strides toward understanding Autism and related disorders.
A recent article in the Archives of General Psychiatry recently reported that close relatives of individuals with Autism have distinct but subtle differences in the way they move their eyes. The researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago said that these differences may not be noticeable to the untrained eye in everyday life or individual conversations, but they strongly suggest that many traits of Autism are inherited. The researchers note that the eye movement differences in family members of individuals with Autism are similar to differences they previously discovered in children with Autism and they believe that these eye movements may provide a key to accessing the specific brain system that are part of the development of Autism. In addition, this team believes that these eye movement tests may have to identify individuals or families that have some level of risk for Autism. Further, one of the authors of this study, Dr. Mosconi, notes that these tests could potentially form the basis for treatment or for predicting which patients may respond to treatment. These tests involved switching the gaze quickly to follow a light as it is turned on and off as well as following a slow-moving object and were found in other studies to reflect which brain pathways are involved in some of the symptom patterns of Autism. Dr. Mosconi notes that the research community knows a good amount of what is actually going on in the brain while people are performing these simple eye movement tests and can specify which areas of the brain are not performing as well as they should be. He claims that these tests can help scientists identify the brain systems which contribute to the symptoms pattern in individuals with Autism.
I worked for the past year as part of an Autism genetics study at the University of Florida. We, too, were working toward finding patterns in individuals with Autism and their close family members. While we were looking at functional behaviors and genetic material, I am highly interested in related studies that look at experimental clues such as these patterns of eye movements. Autism and related disorders are highly complex and I believe that each small stride in understanding these disorders is significant, particularly when these strides can lead to more effective practices in treating individuals with Autism and related disorders.