Of Movement and the Mind

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Motor skills in autistic children predicted social and behavioral skills

September 26, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D. Beth Bolt, RPh

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(dailyRx News) Children with autism develop at different rates and often in different ways than children without autism. There may be links between their motor skills and their development.

A recent study found that autistic children with better fine motor skills also showed stronger social, communication and daily living skills.

Autistic children with better gross motor skills tended to have stronger daily living skills as well.

The study findings point to a need to pay attention to autistic children's motor skills development, the authors wrote.

"Ask your pediatrician about your child's development."

This study, led by Megan MacDonald, PhD, of the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences at Oregon State University, looked at whether autistic children's motor skills were related to their adaptive behavior skills.

The researchers studied 233 children, aged 1 to 4, who had varying diagnoses of developmental delays or disorders.

Among these children, 172 had autism spectrum disorder, 22 had pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and 39 had developmental delays that were not related to autism.

The researchers assessed the children's development with an instrument that measures their gross motor skills, fine motor skills, visual reception (nonverbal problem solving), receptive language (comprehending/listening/understanding language) and expressive language (expressing one's self through language).

Fine motor skills include coordination of small muscle movements in the body, such as the fingers while writing. Fine motor skills have to do with the way a child uses the wrists, hands, fingers, lips, feet and toes.

Gross motor skills have to do with large muscle movements in the body, such as crawling, walking, jumping and running.

Then the researchers used a different test to assess the children's adaptive behavior skills, which included overall behavior, daily living skills, communication skills and adaptive social skills.

In their analysis, the researchers took into account the children's age, their non-verbal problem-solving skills and the severity of their disorder.

The researchers found that the children's levels of fine motor skills predicted how well they scored on all the sections of the adaptive behavior skills assessment.

In addition, the children's motor skills predicted how well the children did with daily living skills.

The children who had weaker fine or gross motor skills also had greater difficulties with adaptive behavior skills.

"The fine and gross motor skills are significantly related to adaptive behavior skills in young children with autism spectrum disorder," the researchers wrote.

"Motor skills need to be considered and included in early intervention programming," they wrote.

Glen Elliott, MD, PhD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, offered his perspectives on the study's findings.

“This study nicely demonstrates that, on average, children with autism show a correlation between fine- and gross-motor skills and a range of daily living skills and adaptive behaviors," Dr. Elliott said.

"The authors imply that this may suggest the value of emphasizing early intervention on motor skills along with other areas of deficits," he said.

"However, it is possible that they are confounding correlation with causation: that is, their observations might equally reflect some other factor, such as overall developmental delays that result in both delayed motor skills and delayed adaptive behaviors," Dr. Elliott suggested.

"Still, given the increasing evidence of the importance of early interventions in help maximize ultimate outcomes in children with autism, research to explore the usefulness of interventions focusing on motor skills well might be merited," he said.

This study was published in the November issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The research was funded by the Simons Foundation, First Words, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Michigan.

One author reported receiving royalties from Western Psychological Service for sales of diagnostic instruments she co-authored. She donates these proceeds to Have Dreams, a not-for-profit autism charity in Chicago. The other authors reported no conflicts of interest.