A new method for screening for autism has recently been developed, and unlike current tests it does not rely on subjective measures. By including important sensory and motor impairments, the new technique provides an early and more objective ability to diagnose autism. Tiny fluctuations in movement are measured using a digital real-time map of the individual’s movements through space. Analysis of the data can determine exactly what degree the movements differ from individuals undergoing normal development. This method can be applied to nonverbal children, adults and even infants. It also has the ability to distinguish gender differences as well as track the individual progress of patients in therapy. Jorge V. Jose, theoretical physicist and computational neuroscientist at Indiana University, said, “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.” In a
separate second paper, the new method is described as a new form of treatment, not only a diagnostic tool. Researchers are hopeful it will have the ability to provide self-motivation for learning communication skills rather than relying on the commands and external cues typically used in behavioral therapy. Elizabeth Torres, a computational neuroscientist, designed the technology to function much like a Nintendo Wii. Children with autism were shown onscreen media, and learned to communicate which media they preferred using a simple motion or gesture. Torres explained, “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.” Participating in the study were 25 children who all learned
by themselves how to choose their favorite media. Most of them were nonverbal and retained the knowledge over time. Torres said, “Children had to search for the magic spot themselves. We didn’t instruct them.” According to Torres, traditional therapy that focuses on developing socially accepted behavior may hold back children with autism. Because they have different sensory and motor perceptions that greatly vary between individuals, helpful mechanisms they have developed to cope with differences may be discouraged. Anne M. Donnellan, director of the USD Autism Institute and professor at the University of San Diego, noted, “Based on my 40+ years 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.” The research is not far enough along to predict whether these methods will become widely available for diagnosis, but Torres is confident the computer-aided methods would be easy for parents to use as aids for their children. Results from this study were published as a series in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. It was funded with a grant given by the National Science Foundation.