A new framework for screening ADHD and Autism

Children with neurodiverse conditions tend to respond differently to spatial categorisation tests than neurotypical children, meaning these tests may help inform earlier diagnoses.

Date: 17 September 2020

The spatial categorisation ‘Common Region Test’ could be a useful tool to screen for neurodiverse conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to research from London Met. 

The test asks children to allocate a place to an object or a region to a group of matching objects; with neurotypical children generally responding differently to those with neurodiverse conditions. 

Finding ways to screen for and understand ASD and ADHD is important because it means families can potentially receive a diagnosis sooner - parents could potentially assess their own children in a few minutes. Identifying these disorders means that targeted interventions can be made earlier, in some cases to alleviate symptoms, in others, to develop coping strategies.

The Gesalt principle of proximity

Led by Professor Christiane Lange-Kuettner, Senior Lecturer and Psychologist at London Metropolitan University, the study investigated how typically developing children and those with ASD and ADHD grouped objects into spatial regions, and whether their approach to determining groups was systematic or not.

The children were given patterns of dots which were arranged according to what’s known as the Gestalt principles of proximity and similarity, and were asked to draw a circle around the ones they thought would belong together. 

The Gestalt principle of proximity says that elements that are closer together are perceived to be more related than elements that are further apart. The Gestalt principle of similarity states that things that look similar are grouped together.

Overall, the researchers found that young, typically developing children initially pay no attention to the Gestalt principles of proximity and similarity because they allocate individual places to individual objects, and they do not group them together into regions. But this changes with age so that grouping - which is also a major factor in memory capacity - begins to emerge in this spatial categorisation task once they attend school.

However, more than 80 per cent of children with ASD and ADHD were not this systematic in their spatial categorisation. Those with ASD continued to include individual object-place units amongst shapes grouped in regions - so were more underinclusive. Those with ADHD were also including shapes that did not match into common regions - so were overinclusive.

Both groups of children with special needs suffered from lower fine motor skills, the children with ASD more so than those with ADHD, compared to typically developing children. Future research should show whether training of fine motor skills can improve spatial categorisation in children with special needs.

The research is published in the Journal of Motor Development, the flagship journal of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity.

An example of the common region test