Saturday, May 11, 2013

Motion Perception and Autism

The Journal of Neuroscience has published research on enhanced motion perception in children with autism.  Previous studies have reported that children with autism can have enhanced visual perceptual skills with static objects but this is the first study that indicated an enhanced perception of motion which may help to explain why some children with autism can be hypersensitive to motion.

The participants in the study were 20 children with autism and 26 children without autism ranging in age from 8-17 years old.  The children were asked which way bars were heading (right or left) on a video screen.  The bars became increasingly smaller when a child answered correctly.  When the the images were low contrast both groups performed similarly.  When the images were high contrast, the children with autism performed twice as well as their peers.

One of the researchers, Foss-Feig, stated the following:
"This dramatically enhanced ability to perceive motion is a hint that the brains of individuals with autism keep responding more and more as intensity increases. Although this could be considered advantageous, in most circumstances if the neural response doesn't stop at the right level it could lead to sensory overload."
This research is particularly interesting to me.  Makes me think of many what-ifs which I know we should not do with research but I can not help myself.   Sensory integration treatment sessions involve the children receiving sensory input and requiring a motor and behavioral response.  When we talk of sensory input though it usually includes some sort of manual therapist/parent intervention (ie - joint compressions), physical motion (ie proprioceptive input) or receptive input (ie white noise).  Visual input is included at times as well such as natural lighting.  But if the overall trigger of sensory overload from movement is visual input are we occasionally missing a key component?

What ways can we include this current research into practice?  Does a child experience hypersensitivity to motion only in more visual stimulating environments of high contrast?  Are children with gravitational insecurity less fearful in environments with less visual stimulation?

Take using a swing for example, should we give a child ample time to explore movement by just pushing the swing and not actually getting on the swing?  Maybe another child or adult can push the swing at a certain speed with the child watching.  Have the child then get on the swing with it going at the same speed.  Then get off the swing and have the child observe again with a faster speed and then get back on the swing to experience this faster speed.  By repeating this task, will it help the child to process motion perception by calling in different senses (vestibular) to help prevent sensory overload?  What if the swing is a bright color against a visual stimulating environment?  Obviously, there are certain children that this approach is taken due to fear or anxiety to use the swing. But do you think about this with other children where it is not so apparent? 

Obviously the visual system and the vestibular system are significantly intertwined but does the visual system play a larger role in sensory overload?  What would the results of this study be if the children had a third intervention where the images were low contrast and the children were moving at the same time?  How about moving and high contrast images?  Something to ponder further...

Reference:  University of Rochester. Enhanced Motion Detection in Autism May Point to Underlying Cause of the Disorder.  Retrieved from the web on 5/11/2013 at

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