For children with autism spectrum disorders, a lack of motor skills means more than just being clumsy. New research has shown that delayed motor development may contribute to social issues in children with autism. The findings support mounting evidence that links motor skill deficits and autism.

Lead author and assistant professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health Megan MacDonald has devoted her time to furthering understanding about the movement skills of children on the autism spectrum. Her latest study considered 35 students, aged 6 to 15 who were diagnosed with “high-functioning” autism. All of the participants were in mainstream classrooms at school. The research team examined “object control” motor skills (precise movements like throwing and catching) and “locomotion” skills (movements like running and walking). The researchers discovered that students who displayed lower levels of proficiency with object control were more likely to have worse social problems and difficulties in communication. Students who performed better on the motor skills evaluation were less likely to experience these issues.

MacDonald commented, “So much of the focus on autism has been on developing social skills, and that is very crucial. Yet we also know there is a link between motor skills and autism, and how deficits in these physical skills play into this larger picture is not clearly understood.” The relationship between motor skills and social skills manifest in several ways. For example, children with autism may avoid participating in playground activities because they are uncertain of their abilities. Unfortunately, a failure to join in with playground games does tend to exacerbate existing social issues.

There is hope for children with autism. Although delayed motor development may hamper their social prospects, motor skills can be learned through appropriate interventions. This research suggests that interventions for motor skills in children with autism may be as important as those for social skills.

This research is published in the July issue of Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly.

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