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IU Researchers Seek To Improve Autism Diagnoses

Scientists hope to make the process less subjective by observing people's movements.

child

Photo: flickr/Alex E. Proimos

Researchers hope to shift diagnostic focus from communication and social skills to physical movement.

One out of every 50 school-age children across the nation has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Despite its prevalence, the diagnostic process can be inconsistent and reliant on subjective observations.

Researchers, including Indiana University scientists hope to regulate the process by providing a method that uses a quantitative analysis of a person’s movements for diagnosing from ages three to 21.

Autism diagnoses are difficult because of their subjectivity. Parents are interviewed, children are observed, checklists are filled out, but the diagnosis of autism is still greatly determined by a doctor’s assessment of a child’s communication and social skills.

So, unlike examining the x-ray of a broken bone, this diagnostic process lacks both clarity and uniformity and does not consist of an actual medical test.

Parent liaison with About Special Kids, Suzanne Aaron, is particularly anxious to see advances in the medical field in autism diagnosis after her son was misdiagnosed. She says after a five-minute interaction in a doctor’s office, a neurologist informed Aaron that her son was too social to have autism. Within 18 months he received a full autism diagnosis in addition to a severe receptive and expressive language disorder diagnosis.

“If there’s no actual medical test, then there’s always room for disagreement,” says Aaron. “I think a lot of us who are raising children with autism are eager for the day when there would be medical testing that’s available. The problem is, as of right now there isn’t, because there’s still so much research to be done.”

This new technique tracks an individual’s movements in real time. A computer program produces 240 images a second, through which it detects systematic signatures as unique as the person’s fingerprint.

Vice President of Research for Indiana University and Physics professor, Jorge José intends for these tests to be complementary to current diagnostic and therapeutic tools.

“The test that we do is dynamic,” says José. “It changes all the time, because we change how we move all the time and you can use those changes to actually develop therapies that may reduce, minimize, or perhaps even overcome their cognitive deficiencies.”

José’s research looks at autism as part of a cluster of movement disorders, which include Parkinson’s, strokes and Tourette’s.

This aspect of autism allows for early diagnosis and individualized treatment, which José and his colleagues are in the process of applying for a $10 million grant to support.

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