By Prof Tony Attwood & Dr Michelle Garnett
As much as autistic children have a different way of learning, they can also have a different way of moving. When walking or running, the child’s coordination can be immature with a gait that lacks fluency and efficiency. On careful observation, there can be a lack of synchrony in the movement of the arms and legs, especially when the person is running. Parents often report that their autistic child needed considerable guidance in learning activities that required manual dexterity such as tying shoelaces, dressing, and using eating utensils. Teachers may notice problems with fine motor skills, such as the ability to write and use scissors. Activities that require coordination and balance can also be affected, such as learning to ride a bicycle, skate or use a scooter. The overall appearance can be of someone who is clumsy.
The movement difficulties associated with autism have been explored by recent research studies with one in three autistic children having significant movement difficulties (Licari et al 2020). A study of 9–12-year-old autistic children found that their performance on motor tasks was at a similar level to children half their age, with difficulty coordinating movements that involve both sides of the body or both arms and legs, as though each body segment acted independently (Staples and Reid 2010). Gait can be affected in terms of a stiffer gate, unusual fluidity of walking, trunk and postural abnormalities and marked loss of smoothness (Nobile et al 2011) There can be an association with bradykinetic motor behaviour (slowness of movement), rigid motor behaviour and hypokinetic behaviour (Mostert-Kerckhoffs et al 2020). A recent systematic review of research on the movement profile associated with autism confirmed an impairment in Fundamental Movement Skills, especially balance, object control and locomotor skills that emerge early in life and persist to the adult years (Gandotra et al 2020)
The movement and coordination problems can be obvious to the physical education teacher and other children during PE classes and sports, and in playground games that require ball skills. An autistic child can be delayed in the development of the ability to catch, throw and kick a ball. When catching a ball with two hands, the arm movements are often poorly coordinated and affected by problems with timing, i.e., the hands close in the correct position, but a fraction of a second too late. The child has taken too long to think and plan what to do.
One of the consequences of not being successful or popular at ball games is the exclusion of the child from some of the social games in the playground. Such children may choose to actively avoid these activities, knowing they are not as able as their peers. However, when they bravely attempt to join in the activity, they can be deliberately excluded by other children due to being perceived as a liability, not an asset, to the team. Thus, autistic children are less able to improve ball skills by practising with their peers.
However, it is interesting that some autistic children have a greater coordination and fluency of movement when swimming, develop remarkable agility when using the trampoline, acquire coordination through practice in solitary sports that can become a special interest, such as golf, and enjoy recreational activities such as horse riding, rowing and cycling. This can be to a level in advance of peers.
The mental planning and coordination of movement
A person is described as having apraxia when there are problems with the conceptualization and planning of movement, so that the action is less proficient and coordinated than one would expect. Some autistic children have problems with the mental preparation and planning of movement with relatively intact motor pathways. Poorly planned movement and a slow mental preparation time may be a more precise description than simply being clumsy.
Ben describes the experience of having a delay or feeling of disengagement between thought and action:
I have always felt a disconnection between my body and my brain. Sometimes it’s as if I don’t have a body. My body has failed me. I fall down when I try to turn. I have problems seeing. I can’t focus. I can’t make my hands move the way I want them to. (La Salle 2003 p.47)
There may also be problems with proprioception, that is the integration of information about the position and movement of the body in space and the ability to maintain posture and balance. These are skills that are often used in the climbing and adventure games of children. There can be a tendency to fall off climbing apparatus and a risk of falling and injury when climbing a tree.
When examining general movement abilities of autistic children, there can be signs of ataxia; that is, less orderly muscular coordination and an abnormal pattern of movement. This can include movements being performed with abnormal force, rhythm and accuracy, and an unsteady gait. Observations of walking and running, climbing stairs, jumping, and touching a target (the finger to nose test) of autistic children indicate signs of ataxia.
One of the movement disturbances associated with autism is lax joints, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndromes. We do not know if this is a structural abnormality or due to low muscle tone, but the autobiography of David Miedzianik describes how:
At infant school I can seem to remember playing a lot of games and them learning us to write. They used to tell me off a lot for holding my pen wrong at infant and primary school. I still don’t hold my pen very good to this day, so my handwriting has never been good. I think a lot of the reason why I hold my pen badly is that the joints of my fingertips are double jointed, and I can bend my fingers right back. (Miedzianik 1986, p.4)
Should problems occur from lax joints or immature or unusual grasp, then the child may be referred to an occupational therapist or physiotherapist for assessment and remedial activities. This should be a priority with a young child, since so much schoolwork requires the use of a pencil or pen.
Teachers and parents can become quite concerned about difficulties an autistic child may have with handwriting. The individual letters can be poorly formed and larger than would be expected for a child of that age. The technical term is macrographia. The child can take too long to complete each letter, causing delay in completing written tasks. While the rest of the class have written several sentences, the autistic child is still deliberating over the first sentence, trying to write legibly, and becoming increasingly frustrated or embarrassed about their inability to write neatly and consistently. – avoid he or her,
Sometimes the word, written in pencil, has been frequently rubbed out as the child considers the letters are not perfect, an exact copy of the printed text in the book. An activity in class may be refused because of an aversion to the requirement to write, not necessarily an aversion to the topic. Teachers may become frustrated by the illegibility of the handwriting but need to remember that this is an expression of a movement disorder, not necessarily a lack of commitment to the work.
Some autistic children can become fascinated by handwriting and develop a special interest in calligraphy. The problem here is that the child takes too long to complete a written assignment in class. Each letter may be perfect, but the child has become more absorbed in the formation of the letters than the content of the sentence.
When an autistic child has a problem with handwriting, there are several options. Remedial exercises to improve motor coordination – basically, lots of practice – can improve the fine motor skills needed to write legibly, but such activities can be extremely boring and resisted. An occupational therapist can suggest modifications to improve handwriting skills, such as a slightly slanted writing surface and a pen that is easier to grasp. A scribe can be used in class to write for the child. However, we suggest to teachers and parents that handwriting is becoming an obsolete skill in the twenty first century: modern technology can come to the rescue in terms of typing, not handwriting.
The young autistic child should be encouraged to learn to type and use a keyboard, computer and printer in the classroom. While basic writing skills are still needed, as the current generation of children become adults, they will be able to talk to a word processing device which will record and print speech. Few people today write someone a handwritten letter; communication is predominantly by typed e-mail. High school and university exams can be completed by typing answers to questions, which is a more efficient means of expressing knowledge and more easily read by examiners. Thus, teachers and parents should not be overly concerned about poor handwriting skills; rather, ensure that the child learns to type. When this option is not available, some children may need to be allowed extra time to complete tasks and exams.
Excellence in movement abilities
While we know that autism can be associated with impaired movement abilities, we have known many autistic children who have achieved abilities in movement skills that have been exceptional and contributed towards winning national and international championships. The movement disturbance does not appear to affect some sporting activities such as surfing, using the trampoline, playing golf and horse riding. These are activities that can be practised in solitude. Because of relative success in these activities, the autistic child can develop a special interest in the activity and with extensive practice and single-minded determination, achieve a level of proficiency that reaches a very high standard.
There can be ability with endurance sports such as marathon running. Once the running movement has become efficient, the autistic adolescent or adult can be remarkably tolerant of discomfort and able to just keep running. Some sports such as fencing can be enjoyed as the participants wear a mask ( reducing the need to engaging in eye contact with the opponent) and there are set movements and responses to learn. Martial arts can also be appealing, especially if there is a slow-motion approach to initially learning defensive and offensive actions. The history and culture of martial arts can also be an intellectual interest for the autistic child. The indoor game of snooker is not a sport associated with motor agility, but autistic adolescents can have a natural understanding of the geometry of the moving balls and the pockets on a snooker table.
In summary, autism is associated with a range of movement disorders that will affect the expression of academic abilities in the classroom and social play in the playground. However, some autistic children have the potential to participate and enjoy a variety of solitary sports.
Where to from here?
We have been training teachers in recognising and supporting autistic students for the majority of our combined 80 years of specialisation in autism. To learn more about this increasingly important area we encourage you to attend our upcoming broadcasts via live webcast. See also our online courses.
Gandotra et al (2020) Research in ASD 78, 101632
LaSalle, B. (2003) Finding Ben: A mother’s journey through the maze of Asperger’s. New York: Contemporary Books.
Licari et al (2020) Autism Research 13, 298-306
Miedzianik, D. (1986) My Autobiography. Child Development Research Unit, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, United Kingdom.
Mostert-Kerckhoffs et al (2020) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 50, 415-428
Nobile et al (2011) Autism 15, 263-283
Staples and Reid (2010) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 40, 209-217