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Understanding Movement and Autism

By Emma Hinze, Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett


Movement is a fundamental aspect of human life, playing a crucial role in our ability to interact with the world and communicate with others. From simple reflexes to complex coordinated actions, the range of movements we perform daily is vast and varied. However, for many autistic individuals, motor planning and execution can present significant challenges. Understanding these difficulties is essential for fostering a supportive and inclusive environment. This article explores the different types of movement, the motor differences commonly experienced by autistic individuals, and how these challenges can impact some autistic individual’s ability to speak and communicate. By understanding these issues, we can work towards better support and acceptance for the autistic community.

What is Movement?

Movement encompasses any physical activity or change in position or posture that involves the skeletal and muscular systems. It is integral to daily life, enabling interaction with the environment and communication with others. Movement ranges from involuntary reflexes to highly coordinated actions.

Types of Movement – Movement can be broadly classified into several types, each essential for human development and functioning:

  1. Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) are the basic building blocks of more complex and specialised movement patterns. They include:
    • Balance Skills: Maintaining body position, whether static or dynamic.
    • Object Control Skills: Manipulating objects with precision, including actions like throwing, catching, kicking, and striking.
    • Locomotor Skills: Movements that propel an individual through space, such as walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, and sliding.
  2. Gross Motor Skills involve using large muscle groups for movements such as crawling, standing, walking, and jumping. They are crucial for general movement and mobility.
  3. Fine Motor Skills These involve smaller movements using smaller muscles, enabling tasks like writing, grasping small objects, and fastening clothing.
  4. Complex Motor Skills These are advanced skills requiring integrating multiple skills, including FMS and fine motor skills, for activities requiring a high degree of coordination and precision.

 

Motor Differences in Autism

Motor difficulties are a common but often overlooked aspect of autism. Studies report that 50% to 95% of autistic children and adolescents experience differences in motor ability (Gandotra et al., 2020). Common motor issues include:

  • Motor Control and Coordination Issues: Difficulty with tasks requiring precise control, such as catching a ball or tying shoelaces.
  • Postural Instability: Difficulty maintaining balance and stable posture.
  • Delayed Motor Milestones: Delays in achieving developmental milestones like crawling, walking, or sitting.

Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) development can differ significantly in autistic children, with many experiencing varied proficiency levels, particularly in object control and locomotor skills (Gandotra et al., 2020). The differences in FMS abilities are often noticeable from an early age and may persist into late childhood. Research suggests that the range of differences in FMS between autistic children and their peers can increase as they grow older (Lloyd et al., 2013).

Why Some Autistic Individuals Have Difficulties with Speaking.

Some autistic individuals may experience significant challenges with speaking due to motor planning and coordination issues:

  • Muscle Tone and Control: Variations in muscle tone, such as hypotonia (low muscle tone) or hypertonia (high muscle tone), can affect the muscles involved in speech production, making it challenging to control speech muscles effectively.
  • Dyspraxia: This condition affects physical coordination and can impact fine motor skills, including those required for speech. Autistic individuals with dyspraxia might struggle with the precise movements needed to produce clear speech.
  • Motor Planning and Coordination Issues: Some autistic individuals may experience apraxia of speech, a motor speech disorder where the brain has difficulty planning and coordinating the movements necessary for speech, making it hard to form words and sentences.

These challenges can present in various ways, including:

  • Planning Speech Movements: The brain struggles to plan the movements needed for speaking, making it hard to form words and sentences.
  • Coordinating Speech Muscles: Challenges in coordinating the muscles used for speech affect clarity and fluency.
  • Consistency in Speech: Inconsistent production of speech sounds, where a person may be able to say a word correctly once but not the next.
  • Sequencing Sounds: Difficulty sequencing sounds correctly, leading to errors in speech.
  • Intelligibility: Speech may be difficult to understand due to mispronunciations and inconsistencies in speech sound production.

 

Nonspeaking vs. Autistic Mutism: Understanding the Distinction

Sometimes there is confusion between nonspeaking autism and the situational mutism experienced by autistic people.

Nonspeaking Communication: Nonspeaking individuals cannot physically produce speech. This inability is often due to motor skill issues, as described, or language impairments, where the brain doesn’t process or understand language effectively. For these individuals, the lack of speech is a constant and ongoing condition.

Situational Mutism: on the other hand, occurs in autistic individuals who can generally produce speech but may temporarily lose the ability to speak due to psychological factors. These factors can include sensory overload, stress, or anxiety. Despite having the physical and neurological capability to speak, certain situations render them temporarily unable to do so.

Some autistic individuals are non-speaking due to challenges with motor planning and execution. Their lack of speech does not reflect a lack of intelligence, feelings, or desire to communicate and interact with others. Instead, their neurology does not support the coordination of the complex physical actions needed for speech. By recognising and understanding these motor challenges, we can offer better support and enhance quality of life for autistic individuals. Gaining insight into these difficulties helps us reshape views, opinions, and stereotypes, adopting a more inclusive and supportive society.

Where to from here:

On Friday, the 28th of June, Michelle and Tony will present a full-day course on Understanding and Supporting Non-speaking Autism. The course will equip participants with an understanding of life as experienced by a non-speaking autistic person, the reasons for specific behavioural and emotional reactions and the creation of an individualised plan to enhance the quality of life and well-being.

Participants in the course will learn practical strategies to encourage speech, the value of alternative and augmentative communication systems, how to acquire new abilities and coping mechanisms for accommodating changes in routines and expectations, sensory sensitivity, and social engagement, conditions that co-occur with autism including epilepsy and how to express and regulate intense emotions constructively.

 

References:

Bedford, R., Pickles, A., & Lord, C. (2016). Early gross motor skills predict the subsequent development of language in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism research, 9(9), 993-1001.

Bhat, A. N. (2023). Fewer children with autism spectrum disorder with motor challenges receive physical and recreational therapies compared to standard therapies: A SPARK data set analysis. Autism, 13623613231193196.

Campos, Joseph J., et al. “Travel broadens the mind.” Infancy 1.2 (2000): 149-219.

Gabbard, C. (2012). Lifelong motor development (6th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

Gandotra, A., Kotyuk, E., Szekely, A., Kasos, K., Csirmaz, L., & Cserjesi, R. (2020). Fundamental movement skills in children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 78, 101632. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2020.101632

Goodway, J. D., Ozmun, J. C., & Gallahue, D. L. (2019). Understanding motor development: Infants, children, adolescents, adults: Infants, children, adolescents, adults. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Lubans, D. R., Plotnikoff, R. C., & Lubans, N. J. (2012). A systematic review of the impact of physical activity programmes on social and emotional well‐being in at‐risk youth. Child and adolescent mental health, 17(1), 2-13.

Miller, H. L., Licari, M. K., Bhat, A., Aziz‐Zadeh, L. S., Van Damme, T., Fears, N. E., … & Tamplain, P. M. (2024). Motor problems in autism: Co‐occurrence or feature?. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 66(1), 16-22.