PhotoThe number of children who have an autism spectrum disorder seems to be growing all the time. Statistics show that one out every 160 children in North America and Europe suffer from the condition, but many can go undiagnosed for years.

However, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Strathclyde and start-up company Harimata has identified a novel way to diagnose autism early so that these children can get the help they need. The key, the researchers say, is to have children play games on a tablet.

“We have shown that children with autism can be identified by their gameplay patterns on an iPad. . . This is potentially a major breakthrough for early identification of autism, because no stressful and expensive tests by clinicians are needed. Early detection is important as this can allow parents and children to gain access to a range of services support,” said researcher Dr. Jonathan Delafield-Butt.

A better test

The researchers began the study after recognizing that current standards at diagnosing autism were not ideal.

“Early assessment of autism allows timely therapeutic intervention, but professional diagnosis of the disorder is difficult and time-consuming,” said Anna Anzulewicz, Director of Research at Harimata.

“Our aim was to develop a test that would be intuitive, fast, fun and engaging for the children. iPad-based games seemed to be perfect, and they are embedded with powerful sensors, which allow for the precise measurement of the children’s play dynamics.”

Movement factor is key

To test the diagnostic effectiveness of tablets, researchers examined 37 children with autism between the ages of three and six. Each child was asked to play a game on a smart tablet computer equipped with a touch sensitive screen and motion sensors. The researchers found that they could determine whether or not a child had autism based on the way in which they moved to interact with the game.

“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,” said Delafield-Butt.

“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. This unexpected finding adds new impetus to a growing scientific understanding that movement is fundamentally disrupted in autism, and may underpin the disorder,” he concluded.

Serious-game assessment

The study could be monumental in providing medical professionals with a non-intrusive, easy way to test whether or not a child has autism at an early age. But while the new method looks promising, the researchers say that more work will be needed to validate their findings.

“This new ‘serious-game’ assessment offers a cheaper, faster, fun way of testing for autism. But work is needed to confirm this finding, and to test for its limitations,” said Delafield-Butt.

The full study has been published in Scientific Reports.

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