UTEP Study Examines Movement in Children with Autism
Last Updated on April 30, 2021 at 12:00 AM
Originally published April 30, 2021
By Laura L. Acosta
Walking, jumping rope or throwing a ball can be difficult to do for children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More than 80% of children with the disorder have gross motor skill impairments, such as problems with balance and coordination, which can interfere with their communication and social interactions.
For more than a year, researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Stanley E. Fulton Gait Research & Movement Analysis Lab in the College of Health Sciences have been using real-time 3D animation to investigate motor impairments in children with autism. Their aim is to understand how children with autism can learn motor skills, so that they can receive effective therapies.
“We are looking at the motor development symptoms that may be associated with autism spectrum disorder,” said Alyssa N. Olivas, a UTEP doctoral student in biomedical engineering. “Typically autism is looked at as a behavioral disorder with children having problems with social skills and communication. But our lab focuses on movement impairments that are associated with autism and seeing if there are any differences in how children with autism move.”
Olivas is the second author on a study led by Jeffrey Eggleston, Ph.D., kinesiology assistant professor and Gait lab director, on motor responses to visual live animation feedback, which was recently published in the journal of Perceptual and Motor Skills. The paper’s release coincides with National Autism Awareness Month in April.
The study’s other authors include Heather R. Vanderhoof and Emily A. Chavez, students in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences (IHS) doctoral program; Carla Alvarado, M.D., board certified psychiatrist; and Jason B. Boyle, Ph.D., associate professor and interim chair of kinesiology at UTEP.
The 18-month study used live animation biofeedback to teach 15 children between the ages of 8 and 17 who have ASD how to do a squat, a strength exercise that works multiple muscle groups in the body’s lower extremities.
Researchers compared their movement patterns to children without the disorder. They found that children with ASD displayed highly individualized responses to the live animation biofeedback, much more so than children with typical development, Eggleston said.
“The greatest takeaway from this study is that when teaching or coaching new movements to an individual with autism, the teacher or coach needs to understand the individual with autism’s specific motor learning characteristics,” said Eggleston, who joined UTEP in 2018. “They need to look specifically at each child’s needs because each child is different.”
The study, which took place before the COVID-19 pandemic, was funded through a nearly $15,000 grant from the J. Edward and Helen M. C. Stern Foundation and UTEP’s kinesiology department.
In the lab, children had 1-inch cubes called inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors strapped to their pelvis, thighs, lower legs and feet. They followed an animation model on a computer screen, which showed them how to squat. The children would then try to perform the squat without looking at the animation.
IMU sensors captured the movement of the child’s lower extremities. The data was relayed to a computer graphics program via Bluetooth, which was transposed into a skeletal animation of the child squatting and then standing back up on the computer screen.
Olivas said looking at live animation helped keep the children interested, which made them more cooperative.
“A lot of the kids were interested in the co-animation because they could actually watch themselves moving,” Olivas said. In February 2021, Olivas virtually presented her research on load accommodation strategies in children with autism at the University of Massachusetts Movement Research Center (UMOVE) Symposium. “It looked kind of like a video game and that’s really big with children, so they were really excited to see all of that.”
Emily Chavez, whose research focuses on lower extremity motor control in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, said the study looks beyond movement impairments in children with autism. It also focuses on the need for society to be more accepting of children with autism.
“My little cousin has autism and I’ve always been interested in how she walks and how it’s very different from other kids,” said Chavez, who described her cousin as walking on her tiptoes. “It is a misconception that doing something different is broken or that it’s bad because it’s not. Children with autism are not broken; they just do things differently and I think it is important to understand how they do those things.”
Chavez also pointed out that another notable characteristic of the study was how female researchers from backgrounds in biomechanics, engineering and kinesiology played a major role in conducting the study.
Vanderhoof, who earned bachelor’s degrees in kinesiological sciences and nutrition sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was responsible for processing and analyzing the data while Olivas and Chavez recruited participants via social media and worked with children in the lab.
“By bringing kids into the lab, we want to show them that it is possible to have a career in science regardless of gender or ability,” said Chavez, who graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in kinesiology. “S.T.E.M. isn’t just a male-dominated area; women have a lot of influence. Through exposure to biomechanics research, hopefully, this is something that children can see themselves doing in the future.”