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Cartoons May Predict Autism In Toddlers

March 30, 2009

Observing how a child reacts to animated cartoons may aid in identifying autism, new research has implied.

Babies normally start watching movement shortly after birth, and retrieve information from the things they observe, but children afflicted with autism usually do not.

A study, available in the journal Nature, was conducted by showing two-year-olds simple animations linked with sound.

In the Yale study, researchers fashioned five different kinds of animated children’s games, like ‘peek-a-boo’ and ‘pat-a-cake,’ where light outlined movement, each connected with a sound.

On half of the screen, a similar animation was shown upside down and backwards, but with the same sound as the original one. Prior research has indicated that children’s attention focuses on these alterations at eight months old.

Twenty-one toddlers with autistic-spectrum disorders (ASD), 39 with normal development, and 16 who had other developmental issues but not ASDE, were researched.

Mutually, the toddlers without development issues and those with developmental problems obviously preferred the unaltered animations. On the other hand, those with ASD did not have a preference and their attention wavered back and forth.

However, when viewing the ‘pat-a-cake’ animation, those with ASD had a definitive preference for the altered animation 66% of the time.  The other toddlers preferred the upright version.

Dr Ami Klin, of the Yale Child Study Center said: “Our results suggest that, in autism, genetic predispositions are exacerbated by atypical experience from a very early age, altering brain development.”

“Attention to biological motion is a fundamental mechanism of social engagement, and in the future, we need to understand how this process is derailed in autism, starting still earlier, in the first weeks and months of life.”

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, stated that: “For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with ASDs.”

“In addition to potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research holds promise for development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders.”

A spokeswoman for the National Autistic Society added: “This is a really interesting study which suggests that children with autism are on a different learning pathway from other children from a very early age.”

“We warmly welcome all research which helps us further our understanding of autism, and how best to help and support those with the condition.”

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