UF institute hosts autism conference


Published: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 12:31 a.m.
Back in 1966, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor roared at each other on the big screen in the film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Now they've had a return engagement as part of a research project seeking to unlock the secret of how autistic children view their world.
"What is going through their minds?" researchers at Yale University's Child Study Center are asking.
Ami Klin, associate professor of child psychology at Yale, presented the results of his eye-tracking studies at the sixth annual autism conference Friday at the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Institute.
The autistic child is turned inward, Klin told an audience of some 100 interested listeners who attended the conference sponsored by the UF College of Medicine's department of psychiatry.
"We may be obsessed with other people and what they think of us," Klin said. "A child with autism doesn't seem to have that social 'template' and will show no predisposition to relate to others."
Autism is a complex developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of a child's life, although sometimes it is not diagnosed until much later.
It affects two to five out of every 10,000 children, and is three to four times more prevalent in boys.
Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong by the time their son or daughter is 18 months old and seek help by the time the child is 2.
Children with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and pretend play.
Some may be aggressive toward themselves or others.
Klin emphasized that the term autism covers a whole spectrum of disorders, from a person who is profoundly retarded to a higher-functioning man or woman who can "give you the 15 Latin names for a lily" but still isn't able to carry on a conversation in a social situation.
The researcher described a 15-month-old girl in the Yale program who looks only at her caregiver's mouth, where another child would watch the eyes to interpret what was being asked of her.
In order to track exactly what elements in the surroundings would engage an autistic child, the Yale team developed an eye tracking technology that reveals what their subject is actually looking at in the world immediately around them.
That's where the movie comes in. Klin showed the Mike Nichols film, which he said is a personal favorite, to 15 normal adolescents and young adults and 15 who had been diagnosed with autism.
While the normal viewer watched Burton and Taylor kiss on screen, Klin found his autistic group focused on inanimate objects within the scene - in this case, the light switch on the wall behind the couple.
The autistic viewer watched the mouth of whoever was speaking, while others switched their focus to see the reaction of others in the scene to what was being said.
Using new techniques such as eye tracking, Klin said, "we are able to identify autistic symptoms in babies of only 12 to 15 months."
He said that by measuring how those with autism search for meaning in everyday social situations, it may finally unlock the puzzle of how an autistic man or woman with a normal IQ can learn so much about the world and still be be unable to adapt to live comfortably in it.
FYI: Autism The following are some of the signs of autism:
  • Absent or poorly developed verbal and nonverbal communication skills
  • Abnormal socialization (lack of need for socialization)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to make friends
  • Repetitive body movements
  • Ritualistic behavior
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Various speech pattern abnormalities
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