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Understanding Autism

Motor Skills Issues

IAN: Interactive Autism Network - Kennedy Krieger Institute

Motor skills are skills, usually mastered in early childhood, that involve your ability to effectively use large and small muscles. They also involve all the other systems that must work together so we can move in a purposeful way: the brain, skeleton, joints, and nervous system. Gross motor skills involve large muscles and include actions like lifting your head, sitting up, or riding a bike. Fine motor skills involve small, precise motor movements, and include actions like holding a crayon or picking up a penny.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum suffer from some type of motor impairment.1,2 They may appear to be clumsy or uncoordinated, with a gait that is slightly awkward. They may be hopeless at sports, not only because of the social issues involved, but because they simply have a hard time throwing, catching, or kicking a ball. They may struggle with fine motor activities like writing with a pencil or tying shoes.

Researchers looking at videos of infants who were later diagnosed as having an ASD have found that these motor difficulties are present even in infancy,3 although it is still unclear exactly how such issues fit into the overall puzzle of ASD. Some have suggested that the pattern of motor deficits points to a connection between "clumsiness" and an impaired "propioceptive system" 4 - the system or sense that tells you where your body is in space and how it is moving. This is a link back to one of the major sensory issues thought to impact people with ASDs. (See Sensory Issues.)

Motor deficits can make life frustrating for those with ASDs, as they make it harder to master life skills (such as holding a spoon, tying a shoe, or zipping a zipper) and to do well in school (because handwriting or drawing is such a challenge). They also make it that much harder to try to interact with non-disabled peers. If you can't ride a bike, catch a ball, or run well, it has an effect on what you can do with kids in the neighborhood, at recess, or in gym.

Motor Skills Issues - References

  1. Jansiewicz, E.M., Goldberg, M.C., Newschaffer, C.J., Denckla, M.G., Landa, R., & Mostofsky, S.H. (2006). Motor signs distinguish children with high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome from controls. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 613-621. Abstract
  2. Baranek, G.T., Parham, L.D., & Bodfish, J.W. (2005). Sensory and motor features in autism: Assessment and intervention. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp. 831-857). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Teitelbaum, P., Teitelbaum, O., Nye, J., Fryman, J., & Maurer, R.G. (1998). Movement analysis in infancy may be useful for early diagnosis of autism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 95, 13982-13987. Abstract
  4. Weimer, A.K., Schatz, A.M., Lincoln, A., Ballantyne, A.O., & Trauner, D.A. (2001). "Motor" impairment in Asperger syndrome: Evidence for a deficit in propioception. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 22(2), 92-101. Abstract




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