With a camera system that captures 3-D images of a child's head (example left) medical school assistant professor of anatomy Kristina Aldridge analyzed 64 boys with autism and 41 non-autistic boys ages eight to 12 years old, mapping 17 points on the face. She found statistically significant differences in face shape between her autistic and non-autistic subjects.
Children with autism have a broader upper face, including wider eyes; a shorter middle region that includes the cheeks and nose; a broader or wider mouth; and other more subtle differences. The study also identified distinct facial traits that occur in subtypes of autistic children with behavior and language problems.
A neuro-developmental disorder known to reduce social abilities while often increasing select cognitive functions, autism is mysterious on several levels. Aldridge hopes her facial profiles will help solve the mystery of autism's origins and its wide variability.
"There is no clear answer about whether autism is caused by genetics or by environmental influences," Aldridge said. "If we can identify when these facial changes occur, we could pinpoint when autism may begin to develop in a child. Knowing that point in time could lead us to identify a genetic cause, a window of time when the embryo may be susceptible to an environmental factor, or both."
The study was published in the journal Molecular Autism in collaboration with graduate students and fellow professors in the College of Engineering, School of Medicine, and Thompson Center.