Autism Motor Deficit: Ecological Measures of Prospective Sensorimotor Timing

Project: Research Studentship - Internally Allocated


This project addresses brain stem motor deficit in autism thought to be a primary etiological error responsible for secondary social, emotional and behavioural symptomologies (Delafield-Butt & Gangopadhyay, 2013; Trevarthen & Delafield-Butt, 2013). Autism motor differences first identified by Kanner (1943) are increasingly recognised as a prominent component of its development as well as requiring therapeutic attention in treatment (Donnellan, Hill, & Leary, 2013; Teitelbaum, et al., 1998; Torres & Donnellan, 2013). Motion capture measurements of goal-directed tasks demonstrate a particular, reliable deficit in action planning and execution, especially the timing of these in a range of motor tasks, e.g. posture (Schmitz, et al., 2003), gait (Rinehart et al., 2006), and goal-directed arm movement (Dowd, et al., 2012; Nazarali, Glazebrook, & Elliott, 2009). Further, perceptual awareness of others’ intentions and affects conveyed in body movement is also disrupted (Cattaneo et al., 2007; Rochat et al., 2013). Altogether, we hypothesise these recent data demonstrate a primary deficit in ASD in a principal form of prospective motor agency, the sensorimotor capacity to efficiently enact desired intentions, regularly thwarting success, creating distress and isolation, and consequent social and emotional compensations (Trevarthen & Delafield-Butt, 2013).

This project will measure the development of prospective timing and sensorimotor integration in children with ASD (Group 1) and in typically developing children (Group 2) between 3 and 6 years old. The work will focus on development of ecological motor paradigms for bespoke, sensorised toys developed in collaboration with Prof. Cecelia Laschi and Assoc. Prof. Francesca Cecchi at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, University of Pisa, and currently tested in field trials by Erasmus student Veronica Chiara Zuccalà. These devices together with new analyses have yielded very successful measurements of movement differences. They enable high-precision motion capture in the home or clinic, and, once firmly established, will provide cost-effective, accurate motor measurement of children’s movement without the need for laboratory-based optical tracking systems, enabling medical device development.

The first phase of research (t=0 to 12 months) will establish motor paradigms, data processing, and analyses algorithms with pilot trials. The second phase of primary research data acquisition (t=12 to 24 months) will apply the established protocol under a cross-sectional design to children to Group 1 & 2 children at three developmental stages (3, 4.5 and 6 years of age). We aim for large cohorts upward of n=50. Ecological sensors employed in the clinic or in the classroom afford rapid data collection of large cohorts of children in a short space of time, and this advantage we will exploit, giving significant advantage within autism research. Confounding IQ and adaptive behaviour (VABS) will be assessed. The third and final phase will constitute data analysis and write-up (t=24 to 36 months).

This will constitute the core data around which the student is free to develop second primary research strand to test prospective timing, and the Human Movement and Biomechanics Laboratory, equipped with state-of-the-art, gold-standard motion capture equipment and virtual immersion systems will be employed for paradigm testing and validation of ecological sensors.
Effective start/end date1/09/161/09/17