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Tablet and phone games could help diagnose autism, study suggests

Young child playing with a tablet computer Image copyright SPL

Autism could be diagnosed by allowing children to play games on smart phones and tablets, according to a study.

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde used games on a tablet to track the player's hand movements.

The information gathered helped them to identify those children who may have autism.

The study outlines how technology could offer an accessible and less intrusive way to diagnose the developmental disorder.

Dr Jonathan Delafield-Butt, one of the researchers and a senior lecturer in child development, said it was important to detect autism early so that children and parents could access a range of support services.

"This is potentially a major breakthrough for early identification of autism, because no stressful and expensive tests by clinicians are needed," he said.

'Unexpected finding'

He said this new "serious game" assessment offered a cheaper, faster, fun way of testing for autism but added that more work was needed to confirm this finding, and to test for its limitations.

"This study is the first step toward a validated instrument," he said. "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.

"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."

During the study, researchers examined movement data gathered from 37 children with autism, aged between three and six.

The children were asked to play games on smart tablet computers with touch-sensitive screens and embedded movement sensors.

'Complex condition'

Autism spectrum disorder is a neuro developmental disorder, and it is estimated that one in 160 children suffer from it.

About 700,000 people in the UK currently live with autism and Dr Judith Brown, head of knowledge and expertise at the National Autistic Society believes that developing a single and universal diagnostic test for such a varied condition is extremely unlikely.

"Autism is a complex condition, which affects each person in a different way," she said. "Currently, diagnosis involves a thorough assessment with many specialised clinical professionals who assess communication, behaviour and repetitive movements.

"Once we understand more about how motor disturbances may contribute to the complex picture of autism, it is possible that technology like smart tablets could be used within the diagnostic process."

The study was published in the Nature group journal Scientific Reports.

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