When I was a child I was the kid who was picked last for sports during gym class. I lacked coordination and any athletic ability with the exception of dodging the ball during dodge ball. I would be best described as awkward and clumsy. So when my son Max showed a similar lack of coordination early on, I just thought, “Well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Although Max walked early, at nine months, he developed an unusual gait which didn’t change very much over the years. He was unable to visually track a ball coming towards him to catch it, bumped into objects, and would sometimes fall down when he ran. Was this just clumsiness or something else? After Max was diagnosed with autism we were told that many children on the autism spectrum lack gross motor skills. The association between autism and difficulty developing motor skills was finally validated in a recent study.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis compared children from 67 families who had autism with their non-autistic siblings. The children were asked to perform a variety of tasks including cutting with scissors, putting pegs in a pegboard, running, throwing a ball, and imitating the movements of others.
The results were overwhelmingly consistent with the hypothesis that children on the autism spectrum may have motor impairments as part of their diagnosis. 83% of the siblings diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum had below average scores in how they performed gross motor tasks compared with their siblings without autism who performed within the normal range.
You may read about this study in the January 2012 edition of the journal, Autism.
Although most people think of a triad of impairments associated with autism including deficits in communication, social skills, and adaptability to change, it appears that problems in motor skill development could be potentially added to the list of symptoms. In addition to painstakingly teaching Max how to communicate and engage with others, we also had to teach him how to catch and throw a ball, swing on a swing, cut with scissors, button his shirt, zip his coat, and even sip from a straw. What other children did naturally and without much thought, Max had to be taught step by step.
Now when I see athletes in how effortlessly they jump, run, or dunk a basketball, I realize that these skills are another type of intelligence, a brain-body connection. Autism, seemingly, hinders this type of connection so that the body is not in tune with what the brain wants to do.
My personal theory on why motor skills may be so difficult for the child on the autism spectrum is that some essential ingredients are missing. In order to perform many motor skills you require attention, an awareness of your body in space, an ability to visually track objects and your body as they move, and also an ability to sequence a series of movements to achieve a desired result. In my son, all of these elements were only partially there or not at all.
The other factor to consider is desire. While Max saw no reason to catch a ball, he stood there and let it bounce off his body, he did desire to paint, draw, and cut paper. His desire to create art ensured that he learned these fine motor skills before things like zipping up his coat.
Early on we addressed Max’s difficulties with motor skill development by getting help from an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist (O.T.) helps individuals with disabilities learn how to perform both gross motor and fine motor movements in order to function in the day to day. For example our O.T. helped Max to learn to use utensils, sip from a straw, and sequence the steps needed to brush his teeth.
We were also given fun homework of helping Max to increase his muscle tone. Some children with autism or other special needs have low muscle tone and tend to be a bit floppy. This is what can cause the awkward gait, the inability to perform certain upper body or hand movements and general clumsiness. So we did things like have him hang from the monkey bars at the playground to increase his grasp and upper body strength. We had clothes pins and hard clay for him to squeeze to increase hand strength. We bought a therapy ball so he could improve his balance. A mini-trampoline would provide a means to increase his lower body agility and strength. We played tug of war, created obstacle courses throughout the house out of play tubes, we enrolled Max in therapeutic horseback riding, we swam, we helped integrate him into a gymnastics class, and we walked every nature trail we could find. This list just scratches the surface of all the activities we did together over the years.
It was our experience that providing opportunities for Max to experience the fun in movement not only helped him to develop motor skills but also had the extra added advantage of increasing his desire to communicate and engage with us. If you have a child with autism who may be a little clumsy and lacking in motor skills, don’t despair. There are a lot of fun ways you can teach your child coordination, agility, and most importantly, confidence in their body.
We would love to hear from you now. Do you have a child who is on the autism spectrum who has difficulty with motor skills? What has helped? Tell us your story. We are listening!
Hilton CL, Zhang Y, White, MR, Klohr CL, Constantino J. Motor impairment in sibling pairs concordant and discordant for autism spectrum disorders. Autism. Published Jan. 18, 2012.
You can find more about Max and Me on our blog: The Autism Express