Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is usually associated with social, language, and behavioral challenges. Issues with motor skills are less talked-about, but it’s common for both gross and fine motor skills to be affected in different ways and to varying degrees in children with ASD.
The good news: Research suggests that interventions for motor delays can be effective in reducing or closing developmental gaps, especially when started before age 3. This study looked at 12-36 month-olds with ASD and confirmed that the earlier you start, the better.
How do motor challenges affect children with ASD?
Difficulties with motor skills can further interfere with already impaired social functioning for children with ASD. Social challenges make it hard for them to interact with peers, and not being able to keep up with group activities involving gross or fine motor skills (chasing games, for example, or taking turns adding pieces to a puzzle) can make it even harder. In turn, by not participating in motor-related activities, children miss out on opportunities to improve motor skills.
Motor challenges can also decrease motivation when it comes to physical activity in general which, over time, can affect long-term health.
What causes ASD-related motor challenges?
Motor challenges in children with ASD may be caused by:
Differences in the brain, which can interfere with the sensory and motor systems working together, resulting in inefficient and/or uncoordinated movement.
Low muscle tone, or hypotonia, which can interfere with motor development.
Anxiety in social situations, which can result in shying away from group physical activity that develops motor skills.
Cognitive issues, which can affect motor planning, or the process of planning and executing movement tasks.
Generalized joint hypermobility, or especially flexible joints, which requires extra muscle strength that children may not have.
Tight muscles, which can cause toe walking, because the calf muscles are harder to stretch.
What are common interventions for ASD-related motor challenges?
There are many interventions to improve motor skills, which are addressed by a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, or a combination of the two. Therapy will depend on your child’s needs, but focuses on strengthening muscles, improving balance and coordination, and practicing various gross and fine motor skills.
Because motor issues can overlap with other areas of development, it’s important that all therapists working with your child communicate with each other about goals, interventions, concerns, and progress.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
- If your child has not been evaluated but his gross and/or fine motor skills are consistently delayed, ask your pediatrician for an evaluation referral. You can learn more in our article about early intervention.
- If your child has been diagnosed with ASD but motor development isn’t in his initial treatment plan, bring it up to his intervention team. Social and language interventions are often prioritized, but it’s also important to decrease developmental gaps in motor skills as early as possible.
- Follow your child’s physical and/or occupational therapists’ lead. Ask for specific ways you can support therapy goals at home.
- Remember that your child may not initiate gross or fine motor tasks on his own, so it’s important to engage and motivate him to participate in activities that support those skills.
To read about more about ASD, head over to our articles on autism, an overview; autism and social-emotional development; autism and language development, autism and cognitive development, and autism and sensory processing.