Motor Skills in Autistic Children

Ella Rain
Painted hands

Motor skills in autistic children can be hindered and the problem may be a matter of brain functioning. Researchers are interested in the parallel between motor skills and social behavior.

What are Motor Skills?

The ability to physically navigate the world requires considerable skill that stems from the central nervous system. The skills include small movements, known as fine motor skills and large movements, or gross motor skills. Fine motor control is necessary for activities like writing and drawing while gross motor control is necessary for activities like walking and jumping.

Motor Skills in Autistic Children

Autistic disorders are neurological conditions that have no real physical characteristics and the differences in brain functioning are not easy to detect. Professionals often rely on observation of behavioral patterns, which can be difficult to measure because the mental processes can't be seen. The benefits of looking into motor skills include:

  • Observable
  • Measurable
  • Can be reproduced
  • May correlate to brain systems that control communication and socialization

Autism manifests through behavior, including fine and gross motor skills. These are among the most measurable areas to test and they demonstrate brain function differences, even in cases of high functioning autism and Aspergers. For example, the Kennedy Krieger Institute is looking at the relationship between motor skills, social skills and communication in autistic children.

Motor Skill Challenges in Autistic Children

Problems with motor skills in children with autism can show up in a number of ways.

  • Gross motor skills can be impaired and this can be due to neurological problems and sensory processing. Learning how to swim, play sports or ride a bike can be difficult because the child may have difficulty with body awareness, balance and motor control.
  • Fine motor skills challenges can make writing, drawing and getting dressed very difficult. Motor control in small muscles in the hands is necessary for many life skills.
  • Speech and language problems are among the most difficult to overcome. Articulation requires precise fine motor skills that involve control over muscles as well as the ability to process language.

Treatments to Improve Motor Skills

A treatment plan may include therapeutic activities specifically designed to help improve motor control. In some cases, the 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 approach most likely used will 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.

Repetition is an important part of the process and consistency is critical. Parents should be active in their children's treatment plans and they should be familiar with the therapies their children receive. Therapists, behavior specialists and case managers have great opportunities to help parents by providing activities to do with their children.

Gross Motor Activities

Simple gross motor activities for kids with autism can help improve balance while developing important motor skills.

  • Catching bubbles
  • Volley balloon
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song
  • Freeze dance
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Climbing
  • Crawling through tunnels
  • Catch
  • Kick a ball
  • Ride a tricycle or bicycle
  • Imitate animal movements (gallop, waddle, hop)
  • Balance on one leg
  • Roll on mats

Simon Says is a great game that can be very challenging. The child has to listen to the directions and follow accordingly. Begin by allowing the child to imitate each time and gradually instruct him to listen for Simon's directions as skills are mastered.

OT Mom Learning Activities has excellent examples of shoulder exercises for kids as well as an explaination of how these activities can improve fine motor skills.

Fine Motor Activities

The connection between gross and fine motor skills may not be readily apparent and the idea can be difficult to explain. The Motor Theory of Language Origin is a fascinating look into the relationship between the development of language and motor skills. The premise is that language stems from motor activities. Fine motor skills require eye motor control, manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, among others. Activities can promote these skills:

  • Play Doh
  • Finger play songs and rhymes
  • Finger paint
  • Pegboards and felt boards
  • Lacing
  • Beading string
  • Puzzles
  • Coloring, drawing and writing
  • Cutting paper
  • Twisting lids off and on
  • Writing or coloring on an easel
  • Buttons, zippers and buckles (begin with Velcro)
  • Play musical instruments

Encourage the child to cross the center of her body while completing activities (crossing midline). For example, drawing large lines and circles on an easel requires the child to cross his arm across his body.Board games are great activities that offer opportunities to build fine motor skills while addressing social skills and communication. Any hands-on project that sparks the child's interest can help.

Learning through Play

Playing with a child is among the most helpful activities because it is a natural way for kids to learn new skills. The activities can improve motor skills in autistic children, which can lead to improved social interactions and improved speech; they are all interconnected.

Motor Skills in Autistic Children