Recent research studies have concluded that movement patterns differ between children with autism and other children, and this difference could lead to early diagnosis and new treatments for autism. Two studies conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and Indiana University appeared in the online journal Frontiers in Neuroscience on July 24, 2013. The first study compared 34 people with autism spectrum disorders to 44 typical people, ranging in age from 3.5 years to 61 years. The study participants engaged in computerized pointing activities.
The computer set-up was used to track the movements of the participants to determine if movements were random or planned based on where the participant predicted an object would be on the computer screen. This study found that, while the ability to predict movement patterns improved with age in the typical participants, the participants with autism showed no such improvement, demonstrating random movements even in older age groups. The researchers concluded that movement patterns may be utilized to diagnose autism in the future.
The second study was completed to determine if children with autism could be taught movement patterns using a computerized method. This study compared 25 children and young adults aged 6 to 25 with 8 typical children aged 3 to 5.
The children utilized a computerized set-up involving a small virtual reality movement area that they had to discover themselves to act upon images on the computer screen. The images consisted of short cartoons and videos that the children could select by holding their hands in the correct positions in the virtual reality space. The movements of one hand pointing to the computer screen were tracked using electrodes attached to the children’s arms.
The results of this study showed that all of the children were able to learn to move their hands in specific ways to activate the videos they wanted to watch, using random trial and error with no prompting. The typical children were able to learn these movements faster than the children with autism, but the patterns learned showed a lasting effect over 2 weeks in all the children. The researchers feel this study may help develop better methods for teaching movement patterns to children with autism.
Another recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, studied eye movements in children considered to be at risk for developing autism. This study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, compared 57 infants who had older siblings diagnosed with autism to 40 infants who did not have older siblings diagnosed with autism. Eye tracking data and brain imaging data were collected at age 7 months, and again after their second birthdays. When the follow up data was collected, 16 of the high risk children were identified as having autism.
The results of this study showed that the 16 children who developed autism had slower gaze shifting times than the other children in the study. The researchers determined that this difference might be due to differences in a brain circuit that connects two structures in the brain. This study concludes that the differences identified in eye gaze shift speed may help diagnose autism at an early age.