Autistic children who are encouraged to be self-motivated instead of relying on external cues and commands can become more independent, researchers from Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, and Indiana University have concluded based on their sensory and motor skills studies. The findings were announced on July 24, 2013, and were published in the “Frontiers in Neuroscience,” which is part of a special issue called “Autism: The Movement Perspective.”
Torres also conducted studies that diagnosed autism based on a screening method that measured minute movement fluctuation rather than physical and social deficits.
The research team set up a digital display similar to a Wii, that interacts with a child’s arm. Children can choose an onscreen media by passing their arm over a certain point themselves.
The 25 mostly non-verbal participants in the study did not receive instructions and had to figure out how to select the media they wanted. They learned that holding their hand in a certain position brought up the media they wanted to watch. Researchers found that the children learned how to make the selection on their own and retained the knowledge of how to do it. The scientists concluded that this kind of autonomy could radically change the way autistic children learn and communicate.
Elizabeth Torres, leader of the studies and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences, says that children with autism have sensory impairments that often hinder their ability to connect their intent and their movements. This barrier creates difficulties in retaining information and communicating with others.
“These children can’t follow instructions, even if they want to, because there is a disconnect between what they want to do and what their body does,” Torres said.
Current behavioral therapy for autistic children are based on giving children commands, prompting them, and giving them rewards. This method emphasizes socially acceptable behavior. Torres says that current methods don’t take into account the sensory and motor impairments of autistic children.
Torres believes that traditional therapies may actually hinder autistic children because she says that these therapies discourage children from using the physical coping mechanisms they have developed to handle their individual motor and sensory differences.
“The therapist decides what to emphasize and what to teach the child, and what to ‘abolish’ without ever measuring what that therapy is actually doing to their system,’’ Torres said. “Tics, lack of eye contact, weird reflexes and repetitive body motions may be a way to establish an anchor in their environment and lower the uncertainty of their moment-to-moment existence.”
Torres thinks that the research may be developed to detect signs of autism early in life, and that videotapes of autistic children’s movements could eventually be used as a diagnostic tool.