Could an eye test lead to earlier autism diagnosis?

New research in America is leading the way


Autism could one day be diagnosed using a simple eye test, so says a pilot study at Washington State University. The penlight reflex test has shown promising results in preliminary studies and adds weight to a theory that already exists: that in children with autism, the eye’s pupils constrict more slowly with flashes of light than those of children who do not have autism.


However, there is an added element to this particular study, which is also looking at a possible link between the different social behaviours of people with autism – for example not being able to make eye contact for very long – and a sort of ‘misfiring’ that occurs in the optic nerves. 

“Deficient functioning of these two cranial nerves makes it challenging for a child to maintain eye gaze,” Dr Georgina Lynch, who is leading the research said. “This is necessary for developing joint attention and for paying attention to dynamic features of a person’s face. These fundamental physical behaviours are needed to develop language and socialisation.”

As part of her study, Dr Lynch and her team tested 24 children aged between 10 and 17, half of whom were known to have autism. In 70% of the children with autism the pupils took markedly longer to constrict when a light was shone into them.

If the results from this small study are confirmed in larger studies, then eye tests for children could used in the future to detect autism.

“If a simple technology can be used by paediatricians to spot a likely sign of autism during routine exams, then we can get these kids a quicker diagnosis and quicker treatment,” said Dr Lynch. “The sooner we can intervene with proven techniques, the better their chances in the world.”

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