Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research is a burgeoning field. Each day, new information is uncovered about the enigmatic disorder that affects close to one in six children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Two new studies, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, have revealed a new way to screen for and treat autism.

Current screening methods for autism and ASD rely on observation and categorization of a child's activity. Behaviors indicative of autism are often repetitive or organizational; many children with autism will move their arms or legs in repeated patterns, and some will even start to stack items placed in front of them. Before, only behaviors — rather than movements or reasons behind them — were observed.

Autism and ASD is caused by changes to the brain during development. As a result of the change, people with autism tend to behave differently, are socially awkward, and do not develop in the same way as others. Often, people do not understand why people with autism are so different, and think that an autistic person's strange behaviors or observations about the world are misguided or the result of some dissociation in their brain and thought processes. However, this study strives to prove that those with autism are just like everyone else.

Sometimes, those with autism perform repetitive and strange movements. Repetivie movements are not a symptom of the disorder, but rather a coping mechanism for the individual, as they often feel anxious and uncertain when taken out of routines or faced with new, socially charged situations. As such, their movements are intentional, and variations in them can indicate goal-oriented behavior — behavior once thought impossible for those with autism and ASD.

The first study examined a group of 78 autistic individuals, aged three to 61. They were all instructed to touch a particular picture of their choice when it appeared on a screen in front of them, and to do so every time the image reappeared. The time it took them to do this was recorded, as well as the number of times they moved toward the image.

Researchers were able to measure micro-movements, or movements that were goal-oriented. They found that micro-movements were synonymous with decision-making toward the goal of pressing the screen quickly enough, instead of just randomly, as once perceived of those with autism and ASD. The regularized speed of movements over the time of the experiment indicated that many participants were taking opportunities to explore the examination they were given — checking to see what would happen if they moved quickly or slowly. Some movements had no clear purpose, but still could be explained as decision-making when participants were over the age of eight.

When the participants were told to adjust to a new image to click, their speed remained unchanged, as they already knew what to do and how to move. While some found the change difficult, the older group with verbal capabilities adjusted most easily to the change.

While these findings on movement do not shed light on an ASD individual's ability to make socially acceptable decisions, it does explain why repetitive motions are made. Researchers explain that erratic or repetitive motions are a coping mechanism and not terribly strange at all. People with autism are, in fact, capable of goal-oriented movement and adaptation, but because of their altered development, their goals outside of experimental conditions may be different from what we consider normal goals.

The use of movement and micro-movements are an innovative way to diagnose autism or ASD. "This research may open doors for the autistic community by offering the option of a diagnosis at a much earlier age and possibly enabling the start of therapy sooner in the child's development," said Jorge V. Jose, Ph.D., a theoretical physicist and computational neuroscientist from Indiana University.

As a result of a new way to screen for the disorder, changes to treatments are expected.

Current treatments for autism serve as therapies to normalize behavior in those with autism and ASD. Therapies focus on teaching children to walk, talk, become independent, and interact with others and their surroundings. But, few therapies focus on the effectiveness of trial and error, as well as adapting goal-oriented movements that those with autism already perform to learn from their surroundings

Now, a new approach — developed by the same lead researcher — allows children with autism and ASD to finally learn cause and effect — a relationship often unlearned in those with autism, as therapies seek to undo any "abnormal" thought processes they may be having. In a study of 25 autistic people aged six to 25, a new treatment option was developed. The participants were shown images or media they liked if they explored enough to figure out which movements and hand positions would get the computer to play the media. The computer was designed to only play the media once touched in a region of interest, and only if a hand was sensed on or near that region. Subjects explored the computer by figuring out how to get it to play their media for the longest amount of time.

Researchers observed a willingness of almost every individual to explore what the computer would respond to. There were few erratic or unrelated movements made while exploring the interface, as participants — through trial and error — found which movements and hand positions the computer responded to and decided to make those specific movements. It is important to note that subjects were not instructed or commanded to do any of this, as they normally are during therapies currently used; they were only encouraged with words of kindness. Even without constant practice, the learning gains were retained and improved over two to four weeks. This finding demonstrates that individuals with autism and ASD have the ability adapt sensory-motor capabilities and do not need to be commanded or coaxed into learning.

These findings indicate that it is ideal to use the strengths that people with autism and ASD already have to improve their independence and confidence as they transition into adulthood. Leading a normal life after an autism diagnosis is certainly possible, but only if the disorder is treated early and effectively. The findings in Frontiers of Neuroscience may translate into publicly available methods for therapy and diagnosis, since they have debunked longstanding assumptions about autism and ASD.

Sources: Torres EB, Brincker M, Isenhower RW, et al. Autism: The Micro-Movement Perspective. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2013.

Torres EB, Yanovich P, Metaxas DN. Give spontaneity and self-discovery a chance in ASD: Spontaneous peripheral limb variability as a proxy to evoke centrally driven intentional acts. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2013.