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Autistic Children’s Learning and Fine Motor Skills

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders often face greater challenges finding the best learning therapies for their child. A new study looks at children with autism who have better...

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders often face greater challenges finding the best learning therapies for their child. A new study looks at children with autism who have better fine motor skills and if having those skills improves learning development. The researchers found that the participants with higher levels of fine motor skills did indeed display stronger daily living skills including better social and communication abilities.

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

Results of the study suggests that helping children with autism develop stronger fine motor skills may improve their adaptive behavior skills as well. 

Fine motor skills involve the small muscles of the body that enable such functions as writing, grasping small objects, and fastening clothing. They involve strength, control and dexterity.

Gross motor skills refer to movements that involve large muscle groups and are generally more broad and energetic than fine motor movements. These may include walking, kicking, jumping, and climbing stairs.

The 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.

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).

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.

The children’s age, non-verbal problem-solving skills and the severity of their disorder were taken into account.

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.

Sources: Tara Haelle, http://health.yahoo.net/articles/children/movement-and-mind

Ann Logsdon, http://learningdisabilities.about.com/od/df/p/finemotorskills.htm

Terri Mauro, http://specialchildren.about.com/od/therapies/g/grossmotor.htm

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More