A novel screening method makes it easier to diagnose and treat children with autism

July 24, 2013, Frontiers
A novel screening method makes it easier to diagnose and treat children with autism
A child with autism discovers how to evoke the onscreen video he likes best. Credit: Rutgers Sensory-Motor Integration Lab

Researchers have developed a new screening method to diagnose autism, which unlike current methods does not rely on subjective criteria. These results are published in a series of studies in the open-access journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

The studies, funded by a US$ 650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, were led by Elizabeth Torres, a computational neuroscientist, and Dimitri Metaxas, a computer scientist, both at Rutgers University, in collaboration with Jorge V. Jose, a theoretical physicist and computational neuroscientist from Indiana University.

Diagnosis

The new technique provides an earlier, more objective and accurate diagnosis of autism, factoring in the importance of sensory and motor impairments. It measures tiny fluctuations in movement and uses a digital real-time map of the subject moving through space and can determine the exact degree to which these patterns of motion differ from more typically developing individuals.

Even in nonverbal and adults with autism, the method can diagnose autism subtypes, identify gender differences and track individual progress in development and treatment. The method may also be applied to infants.

"This research may open doors for the autistic community by offering the option of a diagnosis at a much earlier age and possibly enabling the start of therapy sooner in the child's development," says José, vice president for research at Indiana University and a professor of cellular and integrative physiology at the university's School of Medicine.

Treatment

In a second paper, the new method is applied for intervention. The researchers say that it could change the way autistic children learn and communicate by helping them develop self-motivation, rather than relying on and commands, which are the basis of behavioral therapy for children with autism.

Torres and her team created a digital set-up that works much like a Wii. Autistic children were exposed to onscreen media – such as videos of themselves, cartoons, a music video or a favorite TV show – and learned to communicate what they like with a simple motion.

"Every time the children cross a certain region in space, the media they like best goes on. They start out randomly exploring their surroundings. They seek where in space that interesting spot is which causes the media to play, and then they do so more systematically. Once they see a cause and effect connection, they move deliberately. The action becomes an intentional behavior," explains Torres.

Researchers found that all 25 children in the study, most of whom were nonverbal, spontaneously learned how to choose their favorite media. They also retained this knowledge over time.

The children independently learned that they could control their bodies to convey and procure what they want. "Children had to search for the magic spot themselves,'' Torres says. "We didn't instruct them.''

Torres believes that traditional forms of therapy, which place more emphasis on socially acceptable behavior, can actually hinder children with autism by discouraging mechanisms they have developed to cope with their sensory and motor differences, which vary greatly from individual to individual.

"A powerful framework"

Prof. Anne M. Donnellan, the director of the USD Autism Institute at the University of San Diego, and editor of the papers, says:

"Based on my in my 40+ year experience in autism, I see this research as truly groundbreaking and bound to have a broad impact across multiple disciplines of brain science."

"It provides a powerful, radical new framework for the assessment and categorization of autism that does not require subjective human assessment, and invites a transformation of current behavioral therapies, from emphasis on instruction driven therapies, to exploratory self-discovery techniques."

It is too early to tell whether the research will translate into publicly available methods for therapy and diagnosis, says Torres. But she is confident that parents of children with would find it easy to adopt her computer-aided technique to help their children.

The studies are published as part of a special collection of papers in a Frontiers Research Topic titled Autism: The Movement Perspective.

The co-principle investigators in the study on the clinical side are Dr. John Nurnberger and Dr. Kimberly Stigler from the department of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine

Explore further: Autism in children affects not only social abilities, but also broad range of sensory and motor skills

More information: www.frontiersin.org/

Related Stories

Autism in children affects not only social abilities, but also broad range of sensory and motor skills

June 25, 2013
A group of investigators from San Diego State University's Brain Development Imaging Laboratory are shedding a new light on the effects of autism on the brain.

Hyperconnectivity found in brains of children with autism, study says

June 27, 2013
The brains of children with autism show higher-than-normal connectivity along many neural networks, a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

Team finds age-related changes in how autism affects the brain

March 13, 2013
Newly released findings from Bradley Hospital published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry have found that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect the brain activity of children and adults ...

Enrichment therapy effective among children with autism, study finds

May 21, 2013
Children with autism showed significant improvement after six months of simple sensory exercises at home using everyday items such as scents, spoons and sponges, according to UC Irvine neurobiologists.

In autism, age at diagnosis depends on specific symptoms

April 9, 2013
The age at which a child with autism is diagnosed is related to the particular suite of behavioral symptoms he or she exhibits, new research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows.

Children with autism can identify misbehavior but have trouble putting it in words

October 17, 2012
Children with autism have difficulty identifying inappropriate social behavior, and even when successful, they are often unable to justify why the behavior seemed inappropriate. New brain imaging studies show that children ...

Recommended for you

Nearly imperceptible fluctuations in movement correspond to autism diagnoses

January 17, 2018
A new study led by researchers at Indiana University and Rutgers University provides the strongest evidence yet that nearly imperceptible changes in how people move can be used to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders, including ...

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Being bilingual may help autistic children

January 16, 2018
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently ...

No rise in autism in US in past three years: study

January 2, 2018
After more than a decade of steady increases in the rate of children diagnosed with autism in the United States, the rate has plateaued in the past three years, researchers said Tuesday.

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.