Tag Archives: motor skills

Is there a Link Between ASD Motor Skill Deficits and Social Communication Difficulties?

I started this post thinking it would be about dyspraxia and Asperger’s. Dyspraxia, difficulty with fine and gross motor coordination, is often diagnosed alongside ASD. Adult symptoms of dyspraxia overlap with adult ASD traits to the point that even the experts have trouble separating the two. In fact, autistic individuals are sometimes misdiagnosed as dyspraxic.

If the experts are confused, I’m certainly not going to untangle the topic in a single blog post, so I decided to set that idea aside and write about general movement difficulties. Aspies are a notoriously clumsy lot. I’m forever tripping over stuff, bumping into stuff, dropping stuff, breaking stuff.

Seriously, if you like your stuff, keep me away from it.

I’ve broken an entire kitchen’s worth of glassware in my lifetime. In the first month of owning a new blender, I broke the glass pitcher not once, but twice. You’d think I would have learned the first time not to put it down so forcefully on the counter. After the second one shattered, I downgraded to a plastic pitcher because a blender is not worth that kind of trauma.

Gross and Fine Motor Impairment is Nearly Universal in ASD

The theories about why aspies are so uncoordinated are many: motor planning deficit, motor development delay, motor timing impairment, problems with initiation or inhibition, imitation and praxis impairments, deficient postural control, under reliance on feedforward control. There are also a handful of other conditions that muddy the waters further: apraxia, ataxia, hypotonia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyskinesia . . .

You see where this is going, right? It would be easy to write a book on the subject and still not cover everything. Just defining all of those things would require a whole series of blog posts.

There are a few things that most of the experts agree on:

  • Some level of gross and fine motor impairment is nearly universal in people on the spectrum.

  • Motor impairments may improve somewhat with age, but generally persist into adulthood.

  • With more study, motor development delays could be a reliable indicator of the presence of ASD in very young children.

  • It is unclear whether dyspraxia is a separate diagnosis or the features of dyspraxia overlap with features of ASD.

  • The cause of motor development delay in autism is unknown.

It’s interesting that once again we have something (like insomnia) that occurs in the majority of autistic people but is not part of the diagnostic criteria. Autistic children routinely receive occupational therapy to improve their fine motor coordination, balance and posture; motor impairment is nearly universal. So why isn’t fine/gross motor skill impairment officially one of the diagnostic criteria?

What if Motor Impairments are Connected to More Than Clumsiness?

Some of the research I read about motor skill impairment in ASD is more radical than what you’ll find in the popular literature. Consider these two possibilities:

1. Delayed or nonexistent speech may be the result of a movement disorder. Rather than assuming that nonspeaking autistic individuals don’t have the cognitive development necessary for communication, some researchers believe that there is a physical impediment to performing the necessary movements with the mouth to produce speech.

This isn’t a blanket explanation for all situations in which autistic people are nonspeaking, but it does offer an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between speech and communication. Once we separate the two, thinking of speech in the physical rather than purely cognitive realm, we’re less likely to assume that because a person doesn’t communicate via speech they are incapable of communication.

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It also presents another way of looking at the phenomenon of “selective mutism” (temporary loss of speech). Often a temporary loss of speech in autistic individuals is related to a period of high stress. When I’m very stressed, my speech suffers and I can become temporarily mute or significantly impaired.

I also know that during periods of intense stress, I’m more likely to trip and fall while running or to drop things. There is a definite deterioration in my motor coordination under stress. It’s not hard to imagine this extending to the motor aspects of speech.

2. Social communication issues may arise from early difficulties with motor skills. Before children speak, they rely on nonverbal communication for play. If autistic youngsters aren’t modeling the expected nonverbal cues due to motor impairments, they will also fail to receive appropriate nonverbal responses from their peers.

This failure to communicate physically may mean that autistic children have fewer and poorer quality nonverbal interactions with peers and therefore struggle to learn social communication at the most basic levels. As they grow older and nonverbal communication grows more complex, they fall further and further behind.

Facial expressions, hand gestures, posture and body positioning–all physical movements–are the primary tools of nonverbal interaction. If autistic individuals have difficulties with initiating, performing, mirroring, inhibiting or planning physical movement, it stands to reason that this would include difficulties with the physical movements inherent in nonverbal communication.

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Social Communication Difficulties in a New Light

It’s interesting to think about social communication and speech difficulties as rooted in impaired motor skills. What if we struggle with speech and nonverbal social communication for the same reason that we struggle with catching a ball or learning to ride a bike?

Is it possible that a group of seemingly disconnected autistic traits have a common root in our motor skills impairment?