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Collaborative Success Stories: Making Headway


University of Missouri researchers are investigating underlying patterns in facial characteristics to accelerate diagnostic and research for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

University of Missouri researchers are investigating underlying patterns in facial characteristics to accelerate diagnostics and research for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Diagnosing ASD can be difficult, and there are no definitive medical tests. Now, the findings of an interdisciplinary research team from MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders could lead to a new tool to help us understand when ASD begins and why children with ASD may differ in their symptoms or severity.

Supported by grants from the Simons Foundation and the U.S. Defense Medical Research and Development Program, the researchers used state-of-the-art 3-D technology to map facial characteristics of children between 8 and 12 years of age—some typically-developing and some with autism. The scientists then used advanced statistical methods to analyze minute differences in facial measurements. Certain characteristics recurred in children with ASD, including a broader upper face, a shorter middle region of the face and a wider mouth and philtrum (area above the upper lip).

More importantly, three distinctive facial profiles were identified in children with ASD. This supports the understanding that ASD has many different causes and symptom levels. The technology may help determine when these facial changes occur in the womb—knowledge that could help researchers identify causes of ASD.

The research team included Dr. Ye Duan, Associate Professor of Computer Science in the College of Engineering; Associate Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences Dr. Kristina Aldridge and Professor Emerita of Child Health and Genetics Dr. Judith Miles, both of the School of Medicine; and Nicole Takahashi, Thompson Center Research Core Director.

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Related Initiative(s):
One Health/One Medicine