Moving study to shed new light on the loneliness of autism

University of Manchester scientists are investigating problems controlling movement in people with autism, now thought to be a cause of the social interaction difficulties that they face.

When we observe another human being doing something, such as picking up a cup, it automatically activates our own movement or ‘motor’ system, and this is one way of us beginning to understand what other people are trying to do. However people with autistic spectrum disorder have problems with sensory motor integration – that is, with bringing information from the senses to their motor system.

Kelly Wild and Dr Emma Gowen at the Faculty of Life Sciences, along with Dr Ellen Poliakoff at the School of Psychological Sciences, are investigating these problems further using movement sensors and eye tracking devices on volunteers who are being asked to observe and copy the actions of others.

Kelly explained: “Motor control problems are a lesser known aspect of autistic spectrum disorder – people often think about the social aspects that autistic people face – but motor control problems may be one of the causes of the social problems. We need to do more research to establish that and the level of its impact.”

Autistic spectrum disorder, which includes autism and Asperger syndrome, is a range of disorders that cause communication and emotional problems. To people with these disorders the world can appear chaotic with no clear boundaries, order or meaning. The condition can vary from very mild, where the person can function as well as anyone else around them, to so severe that they are unable to take part in normal society. It is believed that around 1 in every 100 people have autistic spectrum disorder, with over 130,000 children and over 500,000 adults in the UK alone.

In the Manchester study, volunteers with high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome will carry out a series of simple tasks, including watching various short films of movement sequences then imitating them or making decisions about them. They will also trace and copy pictures with a pencil that has a movement sensor attached to it. All the volunteers’ movements will be recorded with state-of-the-art motion and eye tracking equipment during the tasks, which will last from a few minutes to half an hour.

The volunteers, whose involvement will remain strictly confidential, will receive expenses and written feedback from the study, and will also be able to ask questions about their condition.

The team will be publishing their results in two years. The paper will be available on the National Autistic Societies’ website.

  • Anyone who would like to volunteer must be aged 18-45 years with English as their first language. Anyone who wishes to sign up or get further information can contact Kelly Wild on 0161 306 0470 or kelly.wild@manchester.ac.uk.

Notes for editors

For more information or to arrange an interview with Kelly Wild or Emma Gowen, contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111, 07768 980942 or Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk.

The study has been reviewed by the Faculty of Life Sciences Research Ethics Committee 07153 and the NHS Research Ethics Committee 07/H1011/71.

The University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences (FLS), with more than 1000 people involved in research, 1700 undergraduate students and an annual total budget of £65 million, is one of the largest and most successful unified research and teaching organisations of its kind in Europe. See http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/

Researchers at Eye and Vision Sciences, at FLS, work on basic science and clinical projects to improve our understanding of structure and function of the human visual system, and to translate new knowledge into useful clinical tests. Research topics encompass function and dysfunction, visual optics, ocular imaging, psychophysics and electrophysiology and low vision.

The School of Psychological Sciences was founded in 2004, and comprises the oldest Psychology department in the UK together with Human Communication and Deafness and Clinical Psychology divisions.