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Torres Sensory Motor Integration Lab Research Continuation Program

Autism is a highly heterogeneous condition currently affecting in the USA an estimated 1 out of 36 children of school age (CDC 2023 report.) Criteria to diagnose autism are based on social and communication aspects of human behavior, both of which take a long time to visibly manifest before unambiguously detecting significant deviations from neurotypical maturation. Indeed, under the current criteria, the average age of diagnosis is 4.5 years of age, a time of development when foundational circuits for communication and social exchange are already formed. By then, we miss an earlier window of rapid plasticity that spans the first few months of life, when at birth, there is circuitry and functionality already in place to facilitate quantification and tracking of neurodevelopment. In this project, the researchers take a different approach from the current criteria to screen, diagnose and track autism. Instead of waiting for the maturity of social communication and interactions, they start at birth, by examining fundamental motor and sensory systems, to better understand how they evolve to support essential building blocks of social and emotional learning throughout the formative school years and beyond. From head-to-toe, including facial micro-expressions, eyes gaze motion, voice, head and body postures and heart rate variability, along with the continuous biorhythmic activities of the nervous system, the researchers leverage the biosensors revolution and create highly scalable means to do science on the go, in collaboration with self-advocates and their families / caregivers.

This award will fund graduate students as they transition to become postdoctoral fellows, to (1) quantify motor development across the first 30 weeks of life, using highly affordable, scalable means (smart phones and tablets) as data acquisition systems and apps providing parents with quantitative feedback about motor milestones, from the comfort of their home. (2) Deploy a suite of apps to quantify the state of biorhythmic activity in the nervous system of the child pre-K-12, so we can better understand the impact of education and therapies and their effectiveness on the ability of the nervous systems’ biorhythms to physically entrain and of the brain to control these processes in activities of daily living, during learning, adaptation, transfer and generalization of social and emotional activities across multiple contexts; (3) The researchers are developing new means to evoke agency during the learning of augmented communication techniques involving non-speaking autistics across ages. These include devices that close the biofeedback loops and induce in the person the will to map letters and phrases to gestures via a self-discovery process. This work follows the research group’s prior incursion into the closed-loop feedback systems and brings them to a new level of design involving wearables. This new level enables the researchers to transfer their proof of concept from the lab to natural contexts and offers the possibility of creating a highly adaptive personalized digital communication language based on the biorhythmic micro-movements code that they have invented. Together, these projects span different axes of their research program under the Precision Medicine paradigm and cover multiple age groups, ranging from neonates to adults. The ability to start very early and systematically quantify outcomes to close the feedback loops between the person’s nervous systems and the social environment, will bring us beyond screening and diagnosing autism, to truly working with the predispositions and capabilities of the autistic system, thus unveiling its readiness potential for social and communication exchange. This work, combined with our education of society across the board, will bring a type of unprecedented support for autistics and their families and caregivers, mediated by a fundamental shift in the perception of the autistic person, one that underscores the inherent abilities of the autistic nervous system as a coping machine, augmenting our understanding of how the brain works to coordinate mental intent and to volitionally control the physical body in motion.