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"About one-third of autistic people have limited ability to use speech. Some have learned to communicate by pointing to letters of the alphabet. But this method is controversial because it requires the assistance of another person—someone who holds a letterboard in front of users and so could theoretically cue them to point to particular letters. Indeed, some scientists have dismissed the possibility that any nonspeaking autistic person who communicates with assistance could be conveying their own thoughts. In the study reported here, we used head-mounted eye-tracking to investigate communicative agency in a sample of nine nonspeaking autistic letterboard users. We measured the speed and accuracy with which they looked at and pointed to letters as they responded to novel questions. Participants pointed to about one letter per second, rarely made spelling errors, and visually fixated most letters about half a second before pointing to them. Additionally, their response times reflected planning and production processes characteristic of fluent spelling in non-autistic typists. These findings render a cueing account of participants' performance unlikely: The speed, accuracy, timing, and visual fixation patterns suggest that participants pointed to letters they selected themselves, not letters they were directed to by the assistant. The blanket dismissal of assisted autistic communication is therefore unwarranted."

"An important minority of school-aged autistic children, often characterized as 'nonverbal' or 'minimally verbal,' displays little or no spoken language. These children are at risk of being judged 'low-functioning' or 'untestable' via conventional cognitive testing practices. One neglected avenue for assessing autistic children so situated is to engage current knowledge of autistic cognitive strengths. Our aim was thus to pilot a strength-informed assessment of autistic children whose poor performance on conventional instruments suggests their cognitive potential is very limited."

"These results indicate that 'minimally verbal' or 'nonverbal' school-aged autistic children may be at risk of being underestimated: they may be wrongly regarded as having little cognitive potential. Our findings support the usefulness of strength-informed approaches to autism and have important implications for the assessment and education of autistic children."

"Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are portrayed as cognitive and social disorders. Undoubtedly, impairments in communication and restricted-repetitive behaviors that define the disorders have a profound impact on social interactions. But can we go beyond the descriptive nature of this definition and objectively measure behavior?

In this Research Topic we bring movement to the forefront of autism research, diagnosis, and treatment. We gather researchers across disciplines with the unifying goal of recognizing movement and sensory disturbances as core symptoms of the disorder. We will present evidence that profound movement and sensory differences exist in ASD that can be characterized in a way that is conducive with new behavioral treatments, an advantage over observational inventories. We will show that movement patterns can be used to identify sub-types of autism and to design target treatments tailored to each individual. We will show that, when utilizing motor behavior in conjunction with cognitive tasks, we can unveil the best sensory capabilities of each child as well as their unique predispositions to learn.

Many individuals on the spectrum have been perceived as "non-verbal" because they do not speak. Yet, they can communicate through other means. In the absence of spoken language, movement research can open a door into sensorially-driven and gestural forms of communication. Movement can be used to amplify and modulate the sensory signal and help connect individuals with themselves and with their physical and social surroundings. Movement can help us evoke in each child the will to leave “the autistic bubble” and explore the world.

We seek to standardize our measurements and definitions of movement abnormalities in autism relative to cognitive and social capabilities both at the individual level and within a social group. We will argue that movement, its sensation and its perception, will play a fundamental role in objectively measuring and standardizing autism: Its diagnosis, its treatment, and the tracking of an individual’s changes over time.
We will redefine autism from the motor perspective—in closed loop with cognition—in such a way that cognitive and motor behaviors reshape each other to help evoke social awareness.
While psychologists, psychiatrists, and cognitive scientists have provided an important conceptual framework to define the most obvious problems of the autistic behavior—those centered at the social and cognitive issues—we gather here occupational therapists, physical therapists, movement disorders specialists, the fellows in movement science, kinesiology and computational motor control, the pediatricians, and the teachers of children with ASD to focus on important sensory-motor differences that can be used to revise our definitions of ASD and unambiguously define its subtypes.

We will move into action to go beyond subjective inferences to objectively understand real, physical behaviors using unprecedentedly fast and formal methods that can complement pencil-and-paper inventories. We will let the autistic body move and teach us what it feels, what it senses, and what it says. In turn, we will teach it to reach out into the world and seek communication. We will let those labeled “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” alike unlock their potential. We will use natural, physical motions to open new channels of sensorial and gestural communication. We will let movement play the transformative role that it can in broadening the spectrum of basic research in ASD to bring out the hidden inner voices of autism. Come join us in this exciting endeavor!"

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