From Our Founder: Autism and Motor Functions by Dr. Joshua Weinstein

childhood motor skill development and autism


A toddler just learnt to wave good-bye. Their brain had to formulate a new neural pathway and communicate with their body and use signals of the environment to successfully learn this new trick. Every new motor skill that a child learns hinges on the brain’s capacity to formulate significant networks between very different parts of the brain. Like a machine functioning effectively different neural networks have to work together. The part involved in regulating movement, the capability to use sensory material from the environment and from the body and the ability to calculate what is going to occur next are all necessary in order to coordinate motor activities and adjust actions as needed.

Normally developing children make these brain connections, and acquire new motor tasks, straightforwardly in the development of daily experience. They are inspired to undertake new challenges and constantly discover different ways of attaining their objectives. In anticipation of mastering new skills they engage in constant repetition which provides them with a sense of self-efficacy and confidence.
Children with autism and individuals with developmental coordination disorder, do not learn new motor skills in the same easy way, possibly because of differences in the way their brains form new connections.

Learning and motor skill performance is contingent on developing solid contacts between diverse portions of the brain that connect:
sensory data from the body – skin, joints, muscles, vestibular system
sensory information from the atmosphere: vision and hearing
processing objectives, goals and outlooks

When learning to wave good-bye the child feels their muscles moving, they see their parent’s cues and have a goal to please the parent and get the yummy reward of success. All the various parts of the brain are working synchronously to help the child master every new motor skill. Even after the brain has coordinated all the tasks necessary to learn to wave good-bye it continues to assess the consequence. Was there success? Have I reached my goal? What needs to be altered to improve?

Since there are dissimilarities in the wiring of the brain, individuals with autism don’t incorporate all the material required for task learning, and may use less effective ways and may need to be given additional training and direction to acquire new motor skills.
Nevertheless, if they receive enhanced, clear-cut opportunities, all individuals can progress with their motor skill abilities: it may take time, perseverance and knowledge.

How Early Can You Tell?

Research studies show that the level of early motor impairment forecasts the severity of primary ASD indicators. Delays in early developmental milestones such as lying, sitting, crawling and walking were exhibited by each of the children studied who were all later diagnosed by definitive means when they were age three or older. Some of the findings indicate that motor growth in infancy relates to the frequency of language and communicative deficiencies in children who were later identified with ASD.

Additional studies have taken this research further by looking at babies being treated in neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They found that babies who had higher instances of abnormal muscle tone and differences in their visual processing were later diagnosed with autism. At one month of age these infants were more likely to show “persistent neurobehavioral abnormalities” than other babies, while 40% exhibited difficulties visually tracking objects. At 4 months, these infants preferred heightened amounts of visual stimulation. Study co-author Ira Cohen explained, “It fits in anecdotally with what we see later-on, kids with autism like looking at moving things in front of their eyes, such as flapping hands or following contours.”

Cohen and his team suggested that more research is needed in this area to confirm if babies not checked into the NICU exhibit the same pattern of behavior because most children with autism are not born prematurely.
Although the existing diagnosis measures have a nominal description of motor impairment in ASD. Motor irregularities and delays in motor indicators often show up within the first year of life and ordinarily appear prior to communicative or social deficits, assessments on children’s motor functioning can help with early identification and monitoring intervention development.

Moving On
Research is currently exploring the positive benefits of physical activity interventions that will improve motor functions in individuals with autism and perhaps carry-over to other areas as well. Nonetheless, every individual should have a specifically designed treatment plan to improve motor control. In some cases, a child may excel in gross motor with significant impairments in fine motor, or vice versa. Some may have impairments in both areas. Each treatment plan needs to address the specific needs of each child.

The most effective approach is to break down tasks into small steps. Once a task is mastered, the child moves to the next goal. The child achieves success in small increments, each building on one another. This method is applicable to gross motor, fine motor and speech therapy. Eventually, proper motor control is acquired through practice.

Children with autism are not as good at exploring different ways to achieve a goal. They have difficulty sorting through and selecting the right sensory information for a task. They also do not extract lessons from the past and thus have a harder time learning through experience. All of these deficits in brain functions hinder motor development. Yet, they can be addressed with proper treatment.
Autism research is experiencing a growth in the immeasurable area that covers the link between the neural circumstances that interrupt motor development and other salient features of autism. Very soon, research may offer more exact early interventions for improving motor functions and development.

Joshua Weinstein has been an educator and administrator for over four decades. He holds a Ph.D., two Masters Degrees in Educational Administration and Supervision and an MBA in Executive Administration. He has been the CEO in healthcare, social services, and business corporations. He’s the president and founder of Shema Kolainu-Hear Our Voices and ICare4Autism- International Center for Autism Research & Education- a global leader in autism research & education. He can be reached via email at
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