Monday, February 5, 2018

Reading the Research: Diagnosing Autism via Movement

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article suggests an alternative form of diagnosis for autism, from a rather unusual angle: movement.  Using high speed sensors, the scientists examined 70 volunteers as they touched objects on a screen.  It turned out that participants who had autism diagnoses exhibited a greater amount of fluctuations in speed when reaching to the screen, to the point where the movement score was predictive of the diagnosis, and vice versa, right down to the more heavily affected autistic ("lower-functioning") people having the most extreme scores.  This is the second study of this kind this team has done, according to the article, and the previous study also had promising results.

For the confused, these results kind of make sense in the "autism is a brain difference" way of looking at things.  If your brain areas are connected in unusual ways, your movements are going to be more uncoordinated and possibly less controlled than someone whose brain is more normally-developing.  In basic areas of functioning, this may not matter.  For example, I can fold origami, and did so quite a bit in preparation for my wedding.  I can cook with sharp knives, without chopping off my fingers (though admittedly I am VERY careful with knives I know are sharp).  I can move myself up and down sets of stairs and through hallways without bashing my elbows on things (usually...).

But growing up, I was fairly uncoordinated when it came to gym class, which did not endear me to my peers when everyone was focused on winning.  And, truth be told, it took me a lot of tries to learn how to fold origami, and to make chainmail jewelry.  More, I think, than most people would need, if the people I've taught are any indication.  I feel like, as a rule, I tend to take greater care with my fine motor movements (like folding origami, chopping vegetables, pushing buttons) than most people do.  If that's true, and this study is accurate, that might explain a lot.  My extra care in these movements would just be one more remediation of a weakness that autism has given me.

On a different note, it's been noted in various medically-minded textbooks that unusual walking patterns (gait) or clumsiness in movements is often found in autistic people.  I can't say for sure how diagnostic such a thing is, but I do know I walk oddly, with my steps being too long.  If I'm doing very poorly that day, I tend to "clunk" or become less graceful, too.  It's like I no longer have the energy to expend trying to walk gracefully

Then, too, I don't know about you, but I have known people I could identify by how they walked.  A certain amount of leaning forward, a way of lurching to one side, a jerkiness to the steps, perhaps.  This sort of thing is gross (major) body movement, rather than the fine (and almost imperceptible) movement these scientists were testing for... but if I can notice such a thing, then perhaps this same concept does scale all the way down to the fine motor movements. It's a promising, and possibly very fruitful, line of inquiry. 

I'd be curious to know whether the scoring system they're using for this study had any interesting results with other populations, like depressed people, intellectual disabilities, or ADHD.  Any tests that would result from something like this would be a great deal less subjective than current assessments for autism.  Because we don't really know what causes autism, there are no blood tests, genetic screenings, or any other form of objective medical test.  Something like this, if it can be replicated and the results hold true, could be a very quick, objective measure of whether a person is autistic.  That would save a bundle of money in short order, as it is currently very expensive to test for autism.  It requires a well-trained professional, specific expensive tests, and the time to administer them.  Something like this would require only a high speed camera and a computer program.

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