Springboard to Success
By Drew Moser
Haylie Miller is an assistant professor of Applied Exercise Science and Movement Science, director of the Motor & Visual Development Lab, and director of the newly-founded University of Michigan Consortium for Autism Research, Education, & Services (UM-CARES). She joined our school as a faculty member in January 2021. We sat down with Dr. Miller to talk about her background and research.
Movement Magazine: Welcome to the School of Kinesiology! Tell us a little bit about your career so far.
Haylie Miller: I’m a developmental psychologist by training, and my early work was in cognitive neuroscience and development, so I came to kinesiology and movement science through a sort of circuitous route. I have had a lifelong interest in autism, and so in my graduate training I went down the rabbit hole, from the behavioral symptoms of autism to the underlying cognitive, perceptual, and neurological differences we see in this population.
I held a postdoctoral position at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, where I worked on studies of sensorimotor integration using eye-tracking technology and hand-grip force sensors. It was excellent training in the mechanisms of sensorimotor integration in autism, but I wanted to use tasks that were more like what we experience in the real world. I did a second postdoc at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in the Human Movement Performance Lab, where I did some virtual reality studies. Our participants would play games and move their bodies while we collected data from motion-capture, force plates, and mobile eye-tracking. This helped us see how vision is used during natural movement in immersive VR tasks.
MM: Why did you want to study autism?
HM: When I was in elementary school, autistic twins were integrated into my classroom (this was back in the ’90s when students with developmental conditions weren’t integrated into mainstream classrooms very often). My teacher did an excellent job of creating opportunities for us to engage with them in meaningful ways. It was a joy to learn with them and try to understand how they communicated, perceived things, and interacted with the world. It sparked a lifelong passion for me, and I continued doing peer mentoring activities with people on the spectrum throughout high school and college. I love the autism community, and am constantly learning from self-advocates.
MM: Why did you decide to study autism movement specifically?
HM: I saw that it was an understudied aspect of autism. It is something that is acknowledged by everyone, but clinicians are often so focused on communication skills that motor issues fall by the wayside. It seems to me, based on the kids and adults I have spoken with, that movement difficulties are often more of a hindrance than social communication differences. This is fundamental: being able to move your body in the way you want to, intentionally reaching for things, walking around without bumping into things, or cooking a meal for yourself are activities of daily living that impact quality of life. I saw that a big impact could be made if we figure out what the barriers are, and how we can help people work around them.
MM: In addition to your faculty role, you are also the director of the Motor & Visual Development Laboratory. What will your lab be working on?
HM: We will be doing lab-based tasks in addition to studies in the community. For instance, we will be looking at portable tools that can be taken into clinics to assess balance, coordinated reaching, and eye movement. You will also see us in the biomechanics labs studying more nuanced aspects of motor control using motion-capture technology and electromyography.
We will also do projects related to implementation science. We are starting a home-based motor intervention, and we are gathering information from families about barriers to care for motor problems. My goal is to build a comprehensive body of work across the lifespan, in many different contexts.
MM: You’ve also founded UM-CARES—tell us a little about that.
HM: UM-CARES is the University of Michigan Consortium for Autism Research, Education, & Services. Our purpose is to be a hub for anyone (researchers, clinicians, students, caregivers, self-advocates) in the U-M community who is interested in autism. In the fall of 2021, we’re going to start a monthly speaker series on autism-related topics, and we’re going to host an annual event during Autism Awareness month in April. We want to create opportunities for lots of different perspectives to converge, with the shared goal of supporting, accepting, and including people on the autism spectrum.
MM: What’s something that excites you about your research?
HM: One thing that excites me is that very simple movement tasks are great at differentiating autism from typical development, and from other neurodevelopmental conditions. For example, we have published work on individuals leaning towards goal-directed targets. People with autism have different and less-efficient ways of leaning their bodies compared to neurotypical individuals and children with developmental coordination disorder.
Additionally, my team and I reviewed the electronic medical records of autistic patients from a large medical center in Texas, and found that parents were reporting motor problems early on, but weren’t receiving follow-up assessment or care. We are in the process of submitting these data for publication, and we’ve presented these results in clinical education settings to urge clinicians to take parents' motor concerns seriously.
Finally, we recently finished collecting data for my National Institutes of Health K01 award. For this project, we collected movement and eye-tracking data from 150 individuals with and without autism during virtual reality tasks. We are still analyzing the data, but notably, an overwhelming number of autistic children in our sample met the clinical criteria for developmental coordination disorder. This coincides with two other studies we’ve done as well, one of which was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. We’re expecting to publish other papers showing the overlap between autism and other motor disorders in children and adults over the next few years.
MM: What attracted you to the School of Kinesiology and U-M?
HM: I have always dreamed of working at a world-class institution like U-M. I was attracted to U-M because of the many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and because of the incredible resources available for research, teaching, and professional development. I was excited to join SoK because I wanted to collaborate with a diverse group of faculty experts and train students who are passionate about movement science. When I talked to SoK faculty and staff, I heard a unified message: we work hard together, we help one another, and we value people. That was exactly the type of environment I was looking for—it is wonderful to feel challenged and supported!
MM: How has your first year here gone so far?
HM: I’ve been here since January, and it’s been an unusual, but great, first semester. My family and I moved from Texas to Michigan in the middle of winter during the pandemic. I have found the faculty, staff, and students here so incredibly welcoming and collaborative. The resources here are just amazing, and I’m so excited about where our research and outreach can go. I feel like we have hit a springboard that will launch this work to some exciting places in the future.