The app tracks eye movements of a child looking at pictures of social scenes -- for example, those with multiple people. The eye movements of someone with ASD are often different from those of a person without autism. In the study, the app had an accuracy rating of 93.96 percent.
"Right now it is a prototype. We have to consider if other neurological conditions are included, like ADD, how that will affect the outcome," Cho said.
The study, entitled "Gaze-Wasserstein: A Quantitative Screening Approach to Autism Spectrum Disorder," was one of the top-ranked papers at the flagship Wireless Health conference this year, Xu said.
Autism spectrum disorder affects 1-2 people per 1,000 worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with ASD.
"The beauty of the mobile app is that it can be used by parents at home to assess the risk of whether a child may have ASD," Xu said. "This can allow families to seek therapy sooner, and improve the benefits of treatment," he said.
The study found that photos of social scenes evoke the most dramatic differences in eye movement between children with and without ASD. The eye tracking patterns of children with ASD looking at the photos are scattered, versus a more focused pattern of children without ASD.
"We speculate that it is due to their lack of ability to interpret and understand the relationship depicted in the social scene," Cho said.
Use of the app takes up to 54 seconds, which makes it less intrusive than other tests and valuable with children with short attention spans, Cho said.
The study included 32 children ranging in age from 2 to 10. Half of the children had been previously diagnosed with autism in accordance with DSM-V diagnostic criteria. The other half did not have ASD.
Further research will include expanding the study to another 300 to 400 children, which is about the annual enrollment for new evaluations at Children's Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo.
Xu called the research "highly interdisciplinary" because of the need for computer technology, psychology for stimuli selection and medical expertise for the application of autism screening.
"This technology fills the gap between someone suffering from autism to diagnosis and treatment," Xu said.
Hartley-McAndrew said a lot of research is going into the use of technology to help in detecting autism. "We still don't have a completely objective measure to diagnose ASD. The diagnosis is based on expert judgment. There are tests considered the 'gold standards,' but they still are somewhat subjective," she said.
One benefit of the technology is that parents could use it at home to determine if there is a need for clinical examination. And, she said, the technology crosses cultural lines, and language is not a barrier.
"Nowadays, most people have a smartphone," she said.