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INDIANAPOLIS — A team of researchers from Indiana University and Rutgers University has developed a new approach that could help better pinpoint therapies for children with autism.
The method relies on a quantitative analysis of a way a person moves. Researchers say it could eventually revolutionize interventions for children who have a range of conditions, from autism to ADHD.
"We consider this more like a personalized medicine. … Everybody has his own motion DNA, and we need to find what is the right way for them to develop," said Jorge José, vice president of research at Indiana University. "We like to think of this as a complementary tool to diagnosis."
Autism is a complex developmental disorder that typically appears by the time a child is 3, but it affects children differently. However, it is often characterized by difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities.
About one in 96 people have autism, or more than 1.5 million people in the United States, according to the Autism Society of Indiana.
Two papers on the new diagnostic approach appeared Wednesday as part of a special collection of papers on autism and movement in the open-access journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
José, a professor of cellular and integrative physiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, teamed up with Rutgers University professor Elizabeth Torres who had the idea of taking an unorthodox look at autism. Torres, an assistant psychology professor, was shocked at how little attention autism scientists had paid to movement research.
Torres said researchers need to take a broader view of autism and recognize how closely linked movement and cognitive abilities can be.
"This is a systemic problem. This is not a problem of mind. That's just the tip of the iceberg," she said of autism. "You have to look at the peripheral nervous system. Without that you can't think in high levels."
Some autism experts welcomed new perspectives in the ever-pervasive challenge of finding ways to help those with autism, a condition for which there is no cure.
With the number of diagnosed individuals increasing, this effort is welcome, said Susan Wilczynski, distinguished professor of special education and applied behavior analysis at Ball State University.
"I would say this is an exciting beginning, and we all look forward to additional work in this area," said Wilczynski, who is on the board of the Autism Society of Indiana.
However, she cautioned that the studies so far have been small ones and the scientists need to conduct additional research to bear out their findings. In addition, the authors' approach has more in common with certain therapies, such as applied behavior analysis, than they may think, Wilczynski said.
"This is one more tool that can teach children on the spectrum to take action to initiate with their environment, which is absolutely in their best interest but this isn't the only tool or their only exposure to learning how to be spontaneous and initiating and self-motivating," she said.
Torres' team started off by studying both typically developing children and children with autism, breaking down their tiny movements, both voluntary and involuntary.
The technique used a computer program that produces 240 images a second to track a person's random movements. Such measurements can shed light on a person's cognitive abilities, José said.
Unlike other ways of arriving at an autism diagnosis, this method relies on a scientific approach that can be checked and duplicated, Torres said.
"The way diagnosis is done (currently) is entirely based on observation and subjective criteria. There's nothing rigorous, no third party checks on you," she said. "There's a lot of room for improvement here because we have technology and we can even make better methods to actually tackle these issues in autism in a truly individualized way."
In the team's second study, the researchers explored whether this knowledge can form the basis of an intervention for children with autism.
Using a digital set-up along the lines of a Wii, they showed videos to 25 children with autism, many of whom were nonverbal. They asked the children to point to videos they liked.
By the age of 4, most typically developing children master the ability to make these voluntary movements in fairly standardized ways with little conscious thought. Autistic children, however, are more variable in how they will complete such a movement, Torres said. They tend to remain at about the level of a 3-year-old child and do not mature into a predictable set of patterns.
Over time, the trial showed, the children with autism learned how to master their motions and choose their favorite videos spontaneously.
This learning pattern may shed light on the best way to intervene for an individual child, Torres said. Many traditional forms of therapy, she argues, may hurt children with autism by inadvertently discouraging them from relying on coping mechanisms they have developed.
"As soon as we get funding, we have all the machinery in place to enlarge this on a massive scale so we can test thousands of people of all ages and genders," Torres said.