The Impact of Motor Skills on Symptoms of ASD



A study was recently launched in Wisconsin to observe how improving motor skills may help improve the symptoms of autism disorders. Researchers at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are currently studying how technological developments can aid children with ASD.

Brittany Travers, professor of occupational therapy in the Department of Kinesiology at Wisconsin-Madison has utilized video games in particular to observe how they may affect behavior and motor skills.

One of her participants, Xavier, a 9-year old on the spectrum, takes part in the study by playing on the Wii, a popular video game console. Travers utilizes programs that incorporate the console’s balance board, using it to capture motor and postural data.

Initially, the children partake in a rudimentary game, where they select a yoga or martial arts pose to imitate on the board. A silhouette of the child’s body appears on the screen in the game, which also showcases the outline of the proper position. Dots on the screen turn from red to yellow when the silhouette matches the displayed pose. These dots align to 16 points on the body, and data is collected from every 50 milliseconds.

In between poses, the child gets to pick real Wii games to play. Little do the children know, these games also improve balance and stability as they rely on specific body movements to play the game well. For example, Xavier selected “Ski Jump” and “Penguin Slide”, programs that require precise motor skills to succeed in them.

Xavier has been a part of this study for over six weeks, coming to the lab three days a week. He uses the balance board for an hour each time, with Travers and her team studying his motor abilities and assessing his autistic symptoms, such as showcasing repetitive behaviors, and ability to express himself.

Travers repeats her assessments of each child to measure change. She takes brain scans of each of her participants before and after the balance training, to see if any structural changes took place. Currently, professionals and caregivers are split in the debate that motor impairments may lead to social inabilities (with others believing it is the other way around). With further research, Travers will be able to publish findings that can potentially provide an answer.

Travers is hopeful about her work, stating, “Motor skills are highly predictive of independent living skills in people with autism.” She continues, “Even in the worst case scenario, if we can change balance, we can actually help with some of these independent living skills.”


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