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OSU professor probes link between autism, motor skills in children

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Just as children with autism often struggle with social and communication skills, new research conducted in part by an Oregon State University professor suggests that they also often have a lack of motor skills, including throwing and catching.

The good news, said Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, is that those motor skills can be taught – and a laboratory she runs at OSU is devoted in large part to helping children and parents develop those skills.

MacDonald was the lead author on the recent study, which suggested the link between the motor-skills deficits among children with autism and the lack of social and communication skills.

What’s still unclear, MacDonald said in a recent interview, is how or whether the two deficits contribute to each other. For example, she said, students with autism might feel socially awkward in part because they may seem unsure of their physical abilities to participate in playground activities.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on social-communication deficits in children with autism,” MacDonald said, “and there should be.”

But the link between autism and motor skills might also offer clues into autism. And, MacDonald added, improving the motor skills of children with autism could help to improve their quality of life and increase their independence.

In the study, researchers looked at a group of young people ages 6 to 15 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. All 35 students were considered high-functioning.

The researchers looked at two types of motor skills – so-called “object-control” motor skills, which involve precise actions such as catching and throwing, and “locomotion” skills, such as running or walking.

The study (which was coauthored by Catherine Lord of Weill Cornell Medical College and Dale Ulrich of the University of Michigan) showed that students who struggled with their object-control motor skills were more likely to have severe deficits in their social and communication skills.

Additional research – with larger groups – will be required to determine whether the deficits are intrinsically connected or whether one lack tends to reinforce the other.

In the meantime, MacDonald said, motor skills can be taught, and much of the work she and her OSU colleagues do with students with autism and students with disabilities takes place in a laboratory set up in the basement of the Women’s Building at OSU.

OSU’s IMPACT program (IMPACT stands for Individualized Movement and Physical Activity for Children Today) is one program working directly with children with disabilities. Children participate in a variety of physical activities, including swimming and physical-activity based games. Each child gets individual attention from a graduate student or trained undergraduate volunteer.

The program is open to children between 6 months and 21 years with a disability.

An early start in developing these motor skills is important, MacDonald said, pointing to a recent paper in which she and her colleagues reported that at 3 years of age, autistic students already were a year behind in terms of motor skills.

And the gap only increases as students get older, she said: “It was just getting wider and wider and wider.”

So starting with the activities early is important. “I think it really does a make a big difference,” she said. “There’s so much that we can do.”

MacDonald’s work is part of a worldwide surge in interest about autism, and she said it’s an exciting time to be doing research into the topic.

“People are really working around the world, sharing information,” she said. “We’re learning so much.”

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