a boy standing at a windowWhen children play, adults do not usually look for deeper meaning in the chaos of their movements. However, one group of researchers has found a signal in the noise. SFARI reports that researchers observed a pattern in the movements of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Identifying these patterns may aid early detection of the disorder and provide clues as to its severity.

The researchers noticed that there was a trend trend in the way children referred to their clinic for an autism diagnosis explored the clinic’s space. To determine whether their hunch was correct, the researchers installed Noldus EthoVision, a movement tracking system that can track objects like the red tape the researchers affixed to their young participants’ shirts. The researchers observed the movement of 36 children—27 who were diagnosed with autism. Of the other nine children, four had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, three had an anxiety disorder, and one had a language disorder and developmental delay.

For a three minute interval before the assessment and a three minute period immediately after the assessment, the researchers left the room and told parents that their children were free to explore. The room had toys available along one wall and there was also a one-way mirror. A camera on the ceiling recorded the children’s movements, which were then analyzed with software.

The analysis revealed a pattern. Children who exhibited social deficits, repetitive behaviors, or who had an ASD typically explored the room’s perimeter, but children with other developmental disorders stayed close to their parents. Children with the weakest communication skills took the longest to move toward their parents once the researchers left the room.

This movement pattern may be an early indicator of autism spectrum disorders in children. Furthermore, the pattern may also offer clues to the severity of a child’s autism symptoms. Researchers are still working to understand the many facets of autism spectrum disorders.

This research is published in the journal Molecular Autism.

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