Children with Autism Have Difficulty with Motor Skill Development

Autistic Children Have Delays in Motor Skill Development
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Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have found that children with autism often have impaired motor skill development and that this could become a core characteristic of the diagnosis. Although it was known that autistic children often have trouble with tasks such as running, throwing a ball or learning how to write, it was not known whether the development of these skills was a direct symptom of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or if the trait simply ran in families.

Dr. Claudia List Hilton PhD, an assistant professor in occupational therapy and an instructor in psychiatry, and John Constantino MD studied 144 children from 67 families in which at least one child had a diagnosis of an ASD. Overall, there were 48 families with one child with autism and 29 with two children, including six identical twins. The children were observed performing a range of motor skills including the placement of pegs on a board, cutting with scissors and doing physical motions such as running or throwing a ball.

The Bruininks Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency (2nd edition) was used as a standardized measure of fine manual control, manual coordination, body coordination, and strength and agility. This test is widely used in children with disabilities.

More than 80 percent of children with an autism spectrum disorder were below average in motor skills, and the lower the score, the more profound the degree of social impairment. Their healthy siblings generally scored in the normal range with only 6% below average. In families with two children with autism, the siblings had very similar scores, whether or not they were twins.

"The data suggests that genes play a role in the motor impairments observed in those with autism spectrum disorder," Hilton says. "This is further evidence that autism spectrum disorder is a largely genetic disorder."

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Dr. Constantino suggests that developmental processes in the brain which give rise to motor coordination and social responsiveness are shared by both systems, explaining the association in autism. The link may also provide new ideas about intervention strategies to help affected children.

The development of motor skills is essential and basic to being independent. Gross motor skills use large groups of muscles to accomplish tasks such as standing, walking, keeping balance and changing position. Fine motor skills use the smaller muscles in the hands and fingers to eat, draw, brush teeth, button a shirt, write, etc. Dr. Hilton notes that impairments to these basic skills can lead to bigger problems later in life, in more ways than one.

"Some kids aren't socially aware enough that it bothers them, but others are aware, and they feel bad about themselves," she says. "They may have low self-esteem, so even if they have delays only in the motor skills, there is a lot of impact on their well being into adulthood."

Children with delays in these skills should be seen by their primary healthcare provider as soon as possible. Early intervention often leads to greater progress. Parents can use a developmental milestone chart, such as one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess their own child. These milestones begin at age 2 months, long before an autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed, or even suspected.

Journal reference:
Hilton CL, Zhang Y, White, MR, Klohr CL, Constantino J. Motor impairment in sibling pairs concordant and discordant for autism spectrum disorders. Autism. Published Jan. 18, 2012.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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