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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Researchers Employ New Approach to Studying Autism

By Irv Harrell

Through a joint venture, Old Dominion University and Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) researchers are taking a new approach to studying one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the nation: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Their research findings are a culmination of a two-year project, which was presented recently at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. The study found that young adults with ASD continue to struggle with weakness and slower movement compared to those without the disorder. These developmental shortcomings are manifested in such characteristics as upper limb strength, reaction time and walking speed.

Researchers studied 20 young adults with ASD between the ages of 17 and 25, and 20 young adults in the same age range without autism. ODU researchers ran participants through a battery of motor function testing. The EVMS contingent conducted cognitive tests on the group. They then compared the ASD group with the age-matched control group.

"For these adults, every battery of tests we did across the board they were slower," said Steven Morrison, an ODU professor in the School of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training. "Things that happen in the neurodevelopment process impact a whole range of functions."

ASD, a condition that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and interact, affects more than 200,000 people a year in the United States. Those stricken with the disorder can suffer from compulsive behavior, poor eye contact, inappropriate social interaction and self-harm.

"Usually autism studies look at children during their developmental phase," Morrison said. "Depending on what we find, we could then work backward and look at what the trends are present earlier in life and look at possible interventions."

While it is still unknown how these motor deficiencies for adults with ASD affect their lives, similar decreases in reaction times and gait speed resulting from diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have increased the risk of falls.

This pilot study was a product of funding from the College of Health Sciences and informal discussions between the two institutions. Morrison said more research lies ahead on the subject and that researchers will seek out National Institutes of Health funding as well as work on developing new therapies for those suffering from ASD.