A new study led by Jana Iverson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has found no motor skill problems unique to infants with autism. The results of the study, which involved hundreds of children, may be disheartening to scientists hoping to find unique motor skill delays that could help with autism treatment and early intervention.
“There was absolutely nowhere that we found anything that was unique to the [autism] group,” Iverson was quoted as saying in a March 2019 report by Spectrum News. Iverson had hoped she and her team would have an advantage in uncovering signature motor delays for autism due to the large number of children in the study, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
Iverson’s study focused specifically on the younger siblings of children with autism (referred to by the researchers as “baby sibs”), who are at heightened risk of developing the condition. 625 infants were used in the study, 188 of whom were “controls,” or the group untreated by researchers, while 437 were the younger siblings of children with autism, referred to by the researchers as “baby sibs.” Clinicians evaluated the children’s motor skills at 6 months of age, and evaluated them for autism at 36 months using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).
Ultimately, the children found to be at “high risk” for autism displayed no difference from the untreated group of children (the control group) in their gross motor skills (i.e. moving their arms and legs). In short, the study found no difference between the motor skills of children with autism and children with other developmental disabilities.
Anjana Bhat, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Delware, had doubts about the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, the assessment of cognitive and motor abilities used by Iverson and her team, since it relies on simple “yes-or-no” questions.
“The fact that it does not do a great job of distinguishing the groups [autistic and non-autistic] is not surprising,” she said.
Despite its results, some feel the study was still useful and could lay the groundwork for future research.
“[It] provides a road map for more detailed analysis of motor behavior in infants and young children at risk for autism,” Stewart Mostofsky, Director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental and Imaging Research at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, was quoted as saying.
Iverson and her team are continuing to analyze the motor behavior of young children and infants at risk for autism. According to Spectrum’s report, they are video recording infants in their homes to gain insight into the relationship between language development and motor skills.