Date of Award

Spring 2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Biomedical Engineering

First Advisor

Scheidt, Robert A.

Second Advisor

Beardsley, Scott A.

Third Advisor

DeYoe, Edgar A.


Movement disorders are the earliest observed features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) present in infancy. Yet we do not understand the neural basis for impaired goal-directed movements in this population. To reach for an object, it is necessary to perceive the state of the arm and the object using multiple sensory modalities (e.g. vision, proprioception), to integrate those sensations into a motor plan, to execute the plan, and to update the plan based on the sensory consequences of action. In this dissertation, I present three studies in which I recorded hand paths of children with ASD and typically developing (TD) controls as they grasped the handle of a robotic device to control a cursor displayed on a video screen. First, participants performed discrete and continuous movements to capture targets. Cursor feedback was perturbed from the hand's actual position to introduce visuo-spatial conflict between sensory and proprioceptive feedback. Relative to controls, children with ASD made greater errors, consistent with deficits of sensorimotor adaptive and strategic compensations. Second, participants performed a two-interval forced-choice discrimination task in which they perceived two movements of the visual cursor and/or the robot handle and then indicated which of the two movements was more curved. Children with ASD were impaired in their ability to discriminate movement kinematics when provided visual and proprioceptive information simultaneously, suggesting deficits of visuo-proprioceptive integration. Finally, participants made goal-directed reaching movements against a load while undergoing simultaneous functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The load remained constant (predictable) within an initial block of trials and then varied randomly within four additional blocks. Children with ASD exhibited greater movement variability compared to controls during both constant and randomly-varying loads. MRI analysis identified marked differences in the extent and intensity of the neural activities supporting goal-directed reaching in children with ASD compared to TD children in both environmental conditions. Taken together, the three studies revealed deficits of multimodal sensory integration in children with ASD during perception and execution of goal-directed movements and ASD-related motor performance deficits have a telltale neural signature, as revealed by functional MR imaging.