Could an iPad Game Diagnose Autism in Kids?

New research points to yes!
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iPads and autism go hand in hand, as most parents of kids on the spectrum know. My 8-year-old autistic son loves his iPad, and, as I type this, he sits next to me, snuggled close and using his iPad to scroll through videos on YouTube. His fingers fly from one favorite Elmo clip to the next, and his movements are certainly purposeful—but there might be even more to them than that.

A new study from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the company Harimata reports that children with autism touch, swipe, and gesture with the iPad differently while playing a game. This might not seem like a big deal, but it has tremendous potential as an early autism detection tool.

"We have shown that children with autism can be identified by their gameplay patterns on an iPad," says Dr. Jonathan Delafield-Butt, one of the researchers on the study. "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."

This video from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Baltimore, features three children who show early signs of autism spectrum disorder playing with toys and interacting and communicating with others. It compares the footage on each of these children to that of typical children in the same situations. “It helps parents to articulate to their pediatrician any behaviors that concern them,” says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

Although this was a small study—with just 37 participants—it does point to interesting new directions for research about the ways motor skills and movements differ in kids with autism versus their neuro-typical peers. Stay turned for more on this—I'm eager to see if these findings make it into the field as diagnostic tools—and we'll report back on this research direction as we know more.

Jamie Pacton writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @jamiepacton.

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