Raymond Romancyzk, director of Binghamton University's Institute for Child Development, is heading up an intensive research project to learn how children - with and without autism - interact with the world around them. Using a combination of a state-of-the-art eye tracking system, miniaturized psychophysiological monitoring and multiple computers for high-speed processing, Romancyzk and his team are able to ask questions that could help answer how individuals with autism process information and stimuli from the world around them.
The team is using a tracking system that doesn't require the subject to wear a tracking device. Instead a video camera, built into a small desk observes a child. First, reference points are established by having the child watch a short animation, and with the help of a computer, the system overlays the position of a child's eyes onto a second video image of the child's field of vision. While the tracking systems observes the child's face, the eyes are located in the video image and computers record further eye movement.
This allows the team to see where and for exactly how long and where the child is looking, such as at faces, objects, and actions, either live or on video, and permits measurement of an index of physiological anxiety, and the more standard measurement of affect, performance, and behavior. The fact that children don't have any physical contact with the eye tracking system and don't have to wear any special apparatus makes it a great tool even with very young children, whether they have autism or not.
Gathering data from "typical' children will help researchers better distinguish where the differences between non-autistic children and children with autism. The new technology is enabling researchers to ask questions that may have far-reaching implications for educational and clinical approaches for autism.
"Part of the reason for this elaborate scheme is we've also been doing some research on how adults interact with children with autism, how they perceive what they think is going on versus what the child is actually doing," said Romanczyk. "This ties into the subtleties of social interaction that we take for granted. You look at someone and you can tell by their body posture, their gestures, tone of voice, eye gaze and so on, what's being communicated. With children with autism, it's more difficult to do."
The Binghamton University laboratory is the first to achieve simultaneous non-invasive measurement of multiple variables within the full range of individuals with ASD. To support their on-going research efforts, Romancyzk's team recently received funding through the Organization for Autism Research. One aspect of this grant will be to develop a parent-administered assessment of the child's social deficits. The assessment will be validated with the more comprehensive laboratory assessment process, and specific treatment strategies tailored to each child with severe social interaction deficits will be developed based upon the parental and comprehensive laboratory assessments.