If you reach for a cup of coffee, each time the movement will be slightly different, even if you reach for your mug a thousand times. Most movements have a lot of variability — as any archer, bowler or dart player can tell you.

Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington and Rutgers University in Piscataway, NJ, have developed a statistical model to quantify this variability in movement, which can be applied to the study and treatment of very young children with autism. Repetitive, sometimes violent movements are often seen in many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Having an objective method of noting and quantifying movement would be far more useful than the current approach, which relies on the researcher’s or clinician’s subjective evaluation of the child.

How people, including those with autism, move is strongly indicative of their cognitive abilities and ability to process things.

Sensors are placed on the child’s head, arms, head, and trunk, Elizabeth Torres, an author on the study, explained to TheDoctor. These sensors can take 240 measurements per second, and they can precisely quantify the speed of the person, the acceleration of the movement, how the area of the body attached to the sensor moves, and if it moves randomly or purposefully.

“Basically any motion capture system can do this, and once you have that kind of data, the metrics we have created, help decode the data,” said Torres, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers. She and her colleagues have developed a mathematical framework that can predict very precisely where that child is going. Is he or she moving toward anticipatory behavior or towards random behavior?

“[The system] provides a powerful, radical new framework for the assessment and categorization of autism that does not require subjective human assessment, and invites a transformation of current behavioral therapies, from emphasis on instruction-driven therapies, to exploratory self-discovery techniques,” Anne Donnellan, director of the University of San Diego Autism Institute and editor of the paper, said in a press release.

It could be used to help researchers and clinicians understand what's behind ASD children's movements and guide their treatments.

People have looked at how autistic children move, but they have never studied the properties of those movements, Jorge José, vice president for research at Indiana University, told TheDoctor. They never considered that how these children move would provide information about their cognitive abilities.

How people, including those with autism, move is strongly indicative of their cognitive abilities and ability to process things, according to José. This method takes into consideration all the neurons and synapses throughout the body, not just the central nervous system.

“What we found is that, in addition to the difference between voluntary and involuntary movements, the variability in involuntary movements is where the cognitive characteristics of autistic children was better determined, so we could better determine their degree of autism,” he explained. This finding was a surprise, he added.

“What we found is a way of quantitatively measuring [autistic children's] cognitive abilities by looking at how they move,” said José.

An iPad App
The investigators have filed an application for funding to develop technology that will use an iPad to take images of how the babies move without the sensors, and will be able to do some of the statistical analysis of the variability of the babies’ movements, José said.

“Once we get funding, we can start building interfaces with tablet technology and wearable computing technology, and begin describing people’s behaviors in a very quantitative way,” Torres said. Using this technology, she and her colleagues would be able to tell if sound stimuli or visual stimuli make the movements of an autistic child more anticipatory, more predictive.

The technology will allow researchers and clinicians to track the development of persons with autism, as well as their response to investigational drugs. “We can train the children to have more control of their movements than when they started,” said José. He and his colleagues are collaborating with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

The researchers at Mount Sinai are investigating drug therapies in very autistic children, and José and his team are testing the children to see how they develop as they receive the clinical trial drugs. “We are actually able to see if they are making progress or not,” José said.

The paper describing the statistical method of quantifying movement and a second paper about the use of the method in the treatment of autism were published online in the journal, Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience.