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Researchers Study Movement And Vision For Clues About Autism

Autism spectrum disorder is one of the most studied disorders, but researchers at the UNT Health Science Center are possibly the only ones in the nation looking into how body coordination plays a role using this combination of technologies.

The research looks at why many people with autism spectrum disorder have coordination problems. 

Walking down the street without bumping into others can be a challenge.

In the Human Movement Performance Lab at the UNT Health Science Center, volunteers wear special eye-tracking glasses with cameras embedded in their frames. 

They also wear motion capture suits with special reflective markers on them. 

Then they stand in front of a giant, 180-degree virtual reality screen and play interactive video games while balls roll toward them on the screen or ducks appear as if in an arcade game. 

While the glasses track eye movement, the reflective markers allow infrared cameras mounted on the ceiling to track body movement. 

The information then is streamed to computers for analysis that researchers use in their study of how vision and movement work together and why the two integrate differently in people with autism.

"We have this tendency to think of autism as this social disorder, but a lot of the time, people on the spectrum don't just have issues with social skills and communication, they might also have difficulty with coordination,with balance with things like handwriting and tying shoes," said Haylie Miller, PhD.

For the past four years, Dr. Miller has been the lead of a study that compares vision and movement integration in people with autism to people without the disorder.

NBC 5 watched as 7-year-old Jeffrey, a typical child, underwent the interactive games, which help the research team create a baseline of data to compare to that of an autistic child about the same age and size of Jeffrey.

"We have noticed that people with autism rely a lot on their vision, but they're not using their eyes efficiently," said Dr. Miller.

"The problem is that if the parents aren't aware and the providers aren't monitoring for this, then they go all this time thinking that their biggest problem is social skills and communication, when in reality, we haven't built that foundation of good motor skills to support the rest on."

Experts say even though most people with autism also have a mobility disorder, traditional therapies don't focus on those coordination issues.

This research has the potential to change that.

"I think it's important to try and investigate what's underlying the symptoms that we see in autism and try to get a better idea of what might be the mechanisms inside the brain," said Dr. Joyce Mauk, President of Child Studies Center at Cook Children's.

Any change to standard of care might be years away, but Dr. Miller hopes study participants learn more about themselves and the disorder from the assessments she provides to them.

The study is looking for more participants, both adults and children with and without autism.

For more information, click here.

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