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Autism Study Explores Link between Motor and Social Skills

Researchers advocate including “adaptive physical education” in early intervention therapy for ASD
September 11, 2013

Researchers studying toddlers and preschoolers with autism found that social and communication abilities closely tracked a child’s motor skills. In conclusion, they urge the addition of “adaptive physical education” in autism early intervention programs.

"Motor skills are embedded in everything we do, and for too long they’ve been studied separately from social and communication skills in children with autism," says lead researcher Megan MacDonald. "Though we don't quite understand how this link works, this gives us another avenue to consider for early interventions."

Dr. MacDonald is an assistant professor of movement studies in disability at Oregon State University. Her co-authors on the study include autism psychologist Catherine Lord, of Weill Cornell Medical College, and Dale Ulrich, of the University of Michigan. Their findings appear this week in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Parents, doctors and therapists have long noted that children with autism tend to lag in motor as well as social development. In the new study, Dr. MacDonald tested 233 children with autism, 14 to 49 months old. Those who tested higher for motor skills were also better at daily living skills such as talking, playing and making requests.

The study did not directly examine whether therapy that improves motor skills also improves social and communication skills. But this was the implication of the authors’ conclusions.

“We know that children who can sit up, walk, play and run seem to also have better communication skills,” Dr. MacDonald says. “[But] autism’s dramatic impact on social skills tends to obscure its associated motor skill challenges.” Autism-related motor skill deficits often become more noticeable with age, she adds. "We have to wonder about the social implications of a 12-year-old who is running like a much younger child,” she says.

Putting the findings in perspective, Autism Speaks Assistant Director for Dissemination Science Lauren Elder comments:

“This study points to the need for intervention programs tailored to the specific needs of each child. Children with motor difficulties should receive appropriate treatment, whether through a comprehensive early intervention program or through tailored occupational or physical therapy.”

Also see “What Treatments Are Available for Speech, Language and Motor Issues?” in the Autism Treatment section of this website.


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