Scientists have developed a new screening tool that could use an individual’s movement to diagnose and treat autism, according to a series of studies published in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.

Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine and Rutgers University have developed the method, which presents individuals with various images while a sensitive tracker monitors their movements.

The researchers say that this method, which can be used in children over the age of three, could provide an earlier, more objective and more accurate diagnosis of autism.

The method was tested on 78 children and adults with autism, including non-verbal autistic children and those with mild forms of the disorder.

The researchers say that the tool correctly diagnosed all of the participants, and even diagnosed autism subtypes, identified gender differences and tracked individual progress in treatment and development.

A movement tracker is attached to the individual, which senses “systemic signatures,” measuring each person’s movement as they respond to various screen images from an advanced computer program, showing 240 images a second.

The researchers say that this tool analyzes the importance of changes in movement and movement sensing, enabling the identification of stable capabilities in each individual, as well as highlighting the impairments of a person’s movement system.

They add that the screening tool can measure tiny fluctuations, determining exactly how an individual’s movement differs to that of a more typically developing child or adult. Dr Jorge José, vice president of research at Indiana University, says:

We can estimate the cognitive abilities of people just from the variability of how they move. This may lead to a complementary way to develop therapies for autistic children at an early age.”

The researchers say this tool can change the way autistic children learn and communicate by helping them to develop self-motivation, as opposed to being told or conditioned in what to do.

As part of the screening method, 25 autistic children were presented with a variety of media visuals, including videos of themselves, cartoons and music videos, and were given games to play. The children communicated which visuals they liked in a single motion.

Dr Elizabeth Torres, assistant professor in psychology at the School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers University, explains:

“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.”

She adds that through this method, the children independently learned that they could control their own bodies in order to communicate what they wanted to watch.

At present, there is no medical test to diagnose autism, and the disorder is diagnosed through specialists’ opinions on an individual’s behavior and communication.

The researchers say it is too early to see whether this research will lead to methods of therapy and diagnosis that are publicly available.

But Torres says she is confident that parents of autistic children would find it easy to adapt to her computer-aided technique and help their children.

Dr Jorge José adds:

This research may open doors for the autistic community by offering the option of a dynamic diagnosis at a much earlier age and possibly enabling the start of therapy sooner in the child’s development.”