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Motor Challenges are Common in Autism, SPARK Study Confirms

Emily Singer

Date Published: April 15, 2020

A new study confirms that motor challenges, such as difficulties with balance and coordination, are a common feature of autism, found in more than 80 percent, or 8 in 10, of children in the study. Motor challenges can include throwing or catching a ball, writing, getting dressed, and planning complex movements. In this study, motor challenges did not seem to lessen with age. The study used data collected from almost 12,000 SPARK participants aged 5 to 15 years old.

The findings highlight the need to screen children who have autism for motor impairments early on, so that they can receive the right therapies. “Not recognizing motor issues in autism makes it more likely for it to remain undiagnosed and untreated,” says Anjana Bhat, who ran the study and is a physical therapy researcher at the University of Delaware.

People who enroll in SPARK can fill out questionnaires assessing different skills and symptoms, such as language and social behavior. In the new study, researchers analyzed the results from a brief parent survey that was designed to screen for coordination issues in children. The Developmental Coordination Disorder Questionnaire takes 10 minutes to complete can accurately predict if children will be diagnosed with a motor issue when tested by a doctor.

Though 87 percent of children likely had motor issues, only about 30 percent were receiving physical therapy. Bhat says the findings show that for many children who have autism, motor issues are not getting enough attention. “The lack of access to physical therapy and recreational therapies was surprising,” she says.

Most children in the study did get other kinds of therapy, including speech and occupational therapy. These services help the sensory processing and fine-motor challenges of children but don’t address the larger-scale motor issues, such as running, playing, and other activities.

Previous research has shown that many children who have autism also have motor challenges. But this is not considered part of the diagnostic criteria for autism—the list of symptoms that doctors use to make an official diagnosis. Bhat says the findings suggest that motor issues should be included in the diagnostic criteria in the future.

On the practical side, Bhat notes that improving coordination is important for a variety of skills. Many communication skills have a motor component, such as looking towards people and pointing at objects of interest. Playing with peers — a highly motor activity — is important for social development.

“It is important to move away from sedentary play and towards whole-body activities that require motor coordination and physical activity,” Bhat says. “Parents and clinicians must adopt a blend of different approaches, such as outdoor play, music and movement, dance and creative movement, yoga, theater, and martial arts, to promote social communication, cognitive/behavioral, and motor skills in their children.”

SPARK participants who would like to be included in studies like this one should log in and complete the questionnaires on their study dashboard.

References

Bhat A.N. et al. Phys. Ther. (2020) PubMed