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Video games may be the latest tool in the drive to diagnose autism earlier in life.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are using Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console and Kinect sensor in an experimental effort to pick up early signs of autism, Popular Science reports.

The Kinects are set up in the Institute of Child Development to track the individual children by size and the color of their clothing, and can monitor about ten children at a time. Software takes the raw visual data from the Kinects and runs it through an algorithm to look for possible markers of ASD, like an unusually hyperactive or unusually quiet and calm child.

—  “Using the Microsoft Kinect to Detect Autism.” PopSci. 5/8/12.

The work holds the potential for advances in one of the most important frontiers of autism research: early intervention. When a child has autism, diagnosing and beginning a range of therapies early in life can produce dramatic improvements. In fact, early intervention can be important for a wide range of disorders.

And Kinect may only be the beginning. Researchers may use robotic sandboxes and other robots to help diagnose children at risk of developing autism, attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, the University of Minnesota said in a media release.

“Researchers and scientists believe that psychiatric disorders display subtle physical abnormalities in childhood well before the onset of a full disorder,” lead researcher Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos said. “We believe that we can use new computational tools, including computer vision and robotics, with a unique new computer vision algorithm to observe and detect abnormalities in motor and emotion in children to automatically analyze them for abnormalities.”

— “University of Minnesota researchers studying the use of robots and computer vision to diagnose mental disorders in children.” 2/16/11.

Video games are often criticized for promoting violence and wasting time. Who would have thought one of the most popular game consoles could help diagnose autism?

(Thanks to Child Trends for highlighting this study.)

This post originally appeared on Birth to Thrive, the daily blog from Thrive by Five Washington (@thrivebyfivewa), the state’s nonprofit public-private partnership for early learning. Follow journalist Paul Nyhan on Twitter @workingdad.

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