Sticky Mittens for Infants at Risk for Autism Gives a Developmental Push

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Researchers at Vanderbilt University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute have discovered that placing Velcro-covered mittens (sticky mittens) on the hands of infants under 5 months of age for Velcro-covered toy play can lead to a developmental head start that may include advanced social development with an increased early interest in faces for unaffected children as well as children at risk for autism.

The story of the invention of Velcro is reported to be the accidental result of a shaggy dog with burr-bearing plants. After a hike in the Swiss Alps, George de Mestral noticed that burrs from a local burdock plant clung equally well to both the cloth of his pants and his dog’s fur. Placing a sample of the burrs under a microscope’s lens, he realized that the burrs ability to cling was due to hundreds of hook-shaped appendages. The hooks from the burrs were able to cling equally well to cloth that had loop-shaped fibers and to fur coats consisting of curled strands of hair. This observation gave birth to his idea to create a zipper-less fastener made of strips of matching hooks and loops that we know today as Velcro. Velcro is a combination of the words velour and crochet.

Velcro’s usefulness has expanded into the fields of child psychology where scientists have been playing with the idea of finding ways to stimulate early motor development in infants. The importance of this research is that they believe that early motor development is key to a child’s social development. When motor development is delayed or impaired as it is with children with autism, their social skills are underdeveloped as a result.

In a new study published in the journal Developmental Science, co-author Amy Needham, a professor of psychology and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, states “Our findings suggest that in early development, there are more connections among different behaviors than people may expect,” she says. “Early motor development is so important for infants—in this case, beginning to grasp and move objects allows infants to control their own experiences much more directly than they could before.”

In the study, researchers trained and observed 36 normal-developing 3-month-old infants that they divided into two groups. One group of infants was given mittens affixed with strips of Velcro, known as “sticky mittens.” While wearing the mittens, a brief swipe of the infants’ arm made Velcro-covered toys stick to their mittens as if the infants had successfully grasped their objects. The researchers referred to this as “active play.”

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The other group of infants was fitted with similar mittens and toys, but without the Velcro strips. Play by the second group was considered to be “passive play,” because the toys did not stick to the mittens and therefore required interaction from a parent involving moving the toy for them and touching it to the inside of the infant’s palms.

Both groups were given the active and passive play sessions 10 minutes a day every day for two weeks. Following the 2-week play/training sessions, the researchers flashed images of faces and toys on a computer screen and tracked the infants’ eye movements. The researchers compared the eye movements between the active and the passive groups as well as two control groups of untrained infants that were 3 months and 5 months old.

What the researchers found was that:

• The active group showed more interest in faces than in objects. The passive group showed no preference between faces or objects.
• Infants in the active group focused on faces first, which suggests a strengthening of a spontaneous preference for faces.
• The social preferences of 3-month-old infants who experienced active training were similar to those of untrained 5-month-olds, indicating that advanced development of the 3-month-olds is due to training.
• Regardless of whether infants received training or not, the researchers noted that the more reaching attempts an infant makes, the stronger is their tendency to look at faces. This suggests that motor experiences drive social development.
“The most surprising result of our study is that we see a connection between early motor experiences and the emergence of orienting towards faces,” states Klaus Libertus, the study’s lead author and a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders. “Logically, one would predict exactly the opposite. But in the light of seeing actions as serving a social purpose, it does make sense.”

The authors of the paper plan to continue to observe the children from the experiment to determine if the social developmental benefits achieved during the study will persist for the next year.

Source: Libertus, K. and Needham, A. (2011), Reaching experience increases face preference in 3-month-old infants. Developmental Science. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01084.x

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