Autistic Children Prefer Geometric Patterns and Repetitive Movements

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Researchers may not yet fully know what causes autism, but they are gaining ground on tools and resources for screening, as early diagnosis can lead to improved treatment options. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego gives insight on autistic children’s preferences for pattern and repetition.

Autistic Children Prefer Patterns Over Social Images

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems with social interaction and communication that appears in the first three years of life. Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group, estimates that 1 in 100 children are affected and that boys are affected about 3-4 times more often than girls.

Lead study author Karen Pierce PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience and clinical research director at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence, studied the video-watching preferences of 110 toddlers, aged 14 months to 3.5 years, about half of which were diagnosed either with autism or other developmental delay. One video displayed a “screensaver” that featured moving geometric shapes and patterns. A second video showed children dancing, smiling, and playing.

While the children viewed the videos, researchers used an “eye tracker”, which was a small infrared beam that bounced off of the lens of the toddler’s eyes to measure where they focused their gaze.

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All of the children with autism showed strongest preference for the geometric patterns. About 40% of the autistic children spent more than half of the time staring at the shapes compared to less than 2% of the normally-developing toddlers. Nine percent of the children with other developmental delays preferred the patterns.

The autistic children also had fewer eye movements while looking at the patterns than the typically-developing children did while looking at their preferred video – the playing children. “It was if the patterns had a hypnotic effect,” said Pierce.

"Only autistic babies looked at the geometric patterns more than 69 percent of the time. No normal babies did at all," said Pierce. "It's pretty clear that showing heightened interest in geometric patterns and repetitive moving objects is a risk factor for autism."

She adds that the findings could be another clue to help doctors and parents spot the disorder early. While there is no “one sign” that is a clear indicator of autism, parents may want to discuss with their pediatricians if their child is fixated on repetitive patterns such as a spinning fan or flicking the eyelids of a baby doll.

Source Reference:
"Preference for Geometric Patterns Early in Life As a Risk Factor for Autism"
Karen Pierce, PhD; David Conant; Roxana Hazin, BS; Richard Stoner, PhD; Jamie Desmond, MPH
Arch Gen Psychiatry. Published online September 6, 2010. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.113

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