Children with autism can be identified simply by tracking their hand movements while playing a game on an iPad, suggests new research.
“This is potentially a major breakthrough for early identification of autism, because no stressful and expensive tests by clinicians are needed,” said one of the researchers Jonathan Delafield-Butt, Senior Lecturer in Child Development at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
Autism spectrum disorder is a childhood neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact, and its global prevalence is estimated at one in 160 children.
“Early detection is important as this can allow parents and children to gain access to a range of services support,” Delafield-Butt said.
Delafield-Butt and colleagues at a Polish start-up company Harimata, used fun iPad games to track players’ hand movements – gathering information that can help identify autism.
In the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research team outlined how the technology could offer an accessible and less intrusive way to diagnose the developmental disorder.
The researchers examined movement data gathered from 37 children with autism, aged three to six years. The children were asked to play games on smart tablet computers with touch-sensitive screens and embedded movement sensors.
“Analysis revealed these patterns consisted of greater forces at contact and with a different distribution of forces within a gesture, and gesture kinematics were faster and larger, with more distal use of space,” the study said.
“This new ‘serious game’ assessment offers a cheaper, faster, fun way of testing for autism. But more work is needed to confirm this finding, and to test for its limitations,” Delafield-Butt said.
“This study is the first step toward a validated instrument. Interestingly, our study goes further in elucidating the origins of autism, because it turns out that movement is the most important differentiator in the gameplay data,” Delafield-Butt pointed out.
In other words, it is not social, emotional, or cognitive aspects of the gameplay that identify autism. Rather, the key difference is in the way children with autism move their hands as they touch, swipe, and gesture with the iPad during the game, he explained.