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M.D. Rutherford

M.D. Rutherford

Canada Research Chair in Social Perceptual Development

Tier 2 - 2007-04-01 Renewed: 2012-03-01




Understanding how autistic children view movement and facial expressions in ways that are different from typical children, then using this information to improve testing and treatment. 


Because early diagnosis is key to the treatment of autism, this new test and treatment will be very useful, helping screen children at an earlier age, while also shedding light on new aspects of early childhood development. 


At first, autism was thought to be an extremely rare disorder, but recent research suggests that it affects at least 20 out of every 100,000 children, making the quest for effective treatments all the more urgent. But before treatments can be perfected, autism must be better understood.

One piece of the puzzle is to understand how children develop their perceptions of the world, especially how they see the objects and people around them. Autistic children have significantly different impressions, but how different are they? Canada Research Chair in Social Perceptual Development, Dr. M.D. Rutherford, is planning a three-stage approach to that tricky question.

His past research revealed that autistic children cannot differentiate between moving human figures and other moving, non-human objects. In his first experiment Rutherford will probe deeper into this finding by having autistic and typical children watch a computer simulation of a human-like figure. This figure will only have a dozen key points that are visible, including its head, elbows, knees and shoulders. How many of these points must move before a child realizes the figure represents a human? After he discovers this, Rutherford will then find out if there any way to get autistic children, either by themselves, or with training, to come to the same view as a typical child.

Next, he will follow up on his recent research that suggests autistic children "read" the emotion on a person's face in a different way than normal children. Rutherford will explore how people with autism categorize facial expressions, and how this categorization may be revealed in eye movements.

Finally, Rutherford will bring his past and present research together to develop a new testing procedure for autism. Autism is inheritable, so Rutherford will test the younger siblings of children with autism. He will see how these children perceive eye gaze, expressions and the movement of humans and non-human objects. Then, he'll compare these children's results to those of typical children to offer a more accurate diagnosis, and then follow up to see how accurately this test predicts the development of autism.

Because no blood test exists for autism, it can only be diagnosed through screenings, which makes Rutherford's work all the more important-helping parents put to rest fears about whether their child is autistic, and for those few who test positive, offering new ways to help those children learn, develop and grow.