A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2016 | Number 3, Volume 30

IPad games help diagnose ASD, offer insight into origins

Simple iPad games may help clinicians diagnose autism in the future, according to a new study. 

Currently, the diagnosis of autism tends to focus on social, emotional, and language deficits. However, Anna Anzulewicz and colleagues note that disruption of normal movement patterns “is a cardinal feature of ASD and is becoming increasingly recognized as a likely primary deficit in ASD etiology.” 

To determine if they could identify children with autism by analyzing their movement patterns, the researchers used iPads, which have touch-sensitive screens and embedded inertial movement sensors, to record the movements of 37 young children with autism and 45 age- and gender-matched neurotypical controls as they played games. All of the children were between three and six years of age. They played two games, one involving a sharing activity and the other involving free-form coloring.

The researchers report that the movement patterns of children with autism “consisted of greater forces at contact and with a different distribution of forces within a gesture.” In addition, they say, “gesture kinematics were faster and larger, with more distal use of space.” Analysis of the children’s motor patterns identified autism with up to 93% accuracy. 

Study coauthor Jonathan Delafi eld-Butt says, “This study is the first step toward a validated instrument. 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. In other words, 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.” 

Delafield-Butt adds that movement analysis is much simpler than standard techniques used for diagnosing autism. “This is potentially a major breakthrough for early identification of autism, because no stressful and expensive tests by clinicians are needed,” he says. “Early detection is important as this can allow parents and children to gain access to a range of services support. This new ‘serious game’ assessment offers a cheaper, faster, fun way of testing for autism.” He notes, however, that more work is needed to confirm the group’s findings. 

The researchers say an earlier study by a different group also identified autism-specific motor patterns, achieving an accuracy of 96% in identifying individuals with autism. The researchers say the fact that two different studies using different paradigms and technologies achieved similar results is a strong indication that abnormal movements are a key biological marker for autism.


“Toward the autism motor signature: Gesture patterns during smart tablet gameplay identify children with autism,” Anna Anzulewicz, Krzysztof Sobota, and Jonathan T. DelafieldButt, Nature Scientific Reports, August 24, 2016 (online). Address: Jonathan Delafi eld-Butt, Jonathan.delafi [email protected]


“New iPad game could help diagnose autism in children,” news release, University of Strathclyde, August 30, 2016.