A team of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, and Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, says that they have developed a quantitative screening method to diagnose and track autism in children after age 3. The technology works by tracking a child’s random movements in real time with a sophisticated computer program that produces 240 images a second and detects systematic signatures unique to each person. Traditional assessments for diagnosing autism usually involve subjective opinions of a person’s social interaction and communication, and repetitive and restricted behaviors and interests.

The new screening tool factors the importance of changes in movements and movement sensing, enabling the identification of inherent capabilities in each child, rather than just impairments of the child’s movement systems. It measures tiny fluctuations in movement as the individual moves through space and can determine the exact degree to which these patterns of motion differ from more typically developing individuals, and to what degree they can turn into predictive, reliable and anticipatory movements.

Even in nonverbal children and adults with autism, the method can diagnose autism subtypes, identify gender differences, and track individual progress in development and treatment. The method may even be applied to infants. They say that the technology could change the way autistic children learn and communicate by helping them develop self-motivation, rather than relying exclusively on current methods that depend on external cues and commands.

The scientists also created a digital set-up where children with autism were exposed to onscreen media like videos of themselves, cartoons, a music video or a favorite TV show and learned to communicate what material they preferred using a simple motion. When they saw something they like, it caused the media to play. When they realize the cause and effect connection, the researchers said, they begin to move deliberately and develop intentional behavior.

The researchers found that all 25 children in the study, most of whom were nonverbal, spontaneously learned how to choose their favorite media and retained this knowledge over time even without practice. The children independently learned that they could control their bodies to convey and receive what they want.