Brain and Body in Motion: The importance of motor function in autism

Dr. Rujuta Wilson

Dr. Rujuta Wilson is a behavioral child neurologist and faculty member at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and the Department of Pediatrics. Dr. Wilson’s lab (the Wilson Motor Phenotyping Lab) studies motor development in individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions, with the goal of understanding how atypical motor development can impact cognition, social communication, and physical health.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Wilson and her team were determined to make research safe and accessible to the families we care for at CART and Semel. Within a month of the first COVID-19 shutdown earlier in 2020, her team developed a remote, contactless method of quantitatively measuring motor activity and monitoring for signs of atypical development in infants and children enrolled in Dr. Wilson’s iMove: Infant Movement Study. Dr. Wilson’s lab plans to continue offering this contactless study visit procedure even beyond the pandemic so that families can more easily access research opportunities at UCLA CART.

Dr. Wilson’s lab has also recognized that motor difficulties experienced by individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities often leads to less engagement in physical activity, which can ultimately have long-term negative impacts on health and wellness. There is also a paucity of inclusive and adaptive physical activity interventions available for individuals with developmental disabilities. To target these issues, Dr. Wilson and Ms. Emily Coker (4th year medical student at UCLA and founder of the Expressive Movement Initiative) created the UCLA chapter of the Expressive Movement Initiative (EMI), a program designed to introduce the art of creative movement and dance to children with developmental disabilities. The UCLA EMI dance program launched in 2019 and serves children between the ages of 4-17 years old by providing weekly hour-long dance classes wherein volunteer dance teachers are paired one-on-one with an EMI student, modifying movements to accommodate each student’s skill level and ability. The program has since become a highly-regarded student-run organization, providing an expressive outlet for over 230 children through adaptive dance. To support and grow the UCLA EMI dance program, Dr. Wilson has obtained funding as director of the Neurology Node of the competitive Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P) HRSA grant. This funding will allow Dr. Wilson and her to team to better measure the benefits of the program and further advocate for more evidence-based physical health and wellness interventions for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. In accordance with UCLA public safety guidelines, the EMI dance program moved to a virtual format in 2020, allowing the team to continue serving children and their families during the pandemic. While Dr. Wilson hopes to get back to holding in-person dance classes later this year, she and her team plan to continue offering virtual classes for those families who find that is the best way to keep moving and dancing!

The motor phenotyping lab has also remained dedicated to training and teaching the next generation of advocates, researchers, and clinicians in the field of developmental disabilities. Notable accomplishments this year for students and staff in the lab include: Ms. Emily Coker, MS4, recipient of the prestigious AOA Carolyn AOA Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship; Ms. Kristal Orta Martinez, senior undergraduate student at UCLA, recipient of the CART Sigman Scholarship and acceptance into multiple programs for a Master’s in Special Education; and Ms. Tabby Safari, research associate, acceptance to the University of Washington, Human Centered Design and Engineering Master of Science Program.