How does autism affect fine motor development in children
My daughter has cerebral palsy (CP) so her fine motor skills are impacted by this disability, but I often wonder what her skills in this area would have looked like if she didn’t have a dual diagnosis of CP and autism?
There isn’t a whole lot of research out there regarding this topic and perhaps the lack of fine motor skills in children, like my daughter, are in fact due to other delays or disabilities?
Autism is a neurological disability that affects how an individual thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment. It is a spectrum that can cause significant behaviour, social and communication challenges, and sometimes learning struggles. Some people with autism will require substantial lifetime support whereas others are able to live more independently. Therapy and intervention strategies will look different for everyone.
There are many characteristics and struggles that may be present for children with autism. Some of which include.
-Having restricted interests
-Delay in verbal communication skills
-Poor eye contact
-Difficulty expressing self
-Difficulty interpreting body language
-Intense emotional reactions
-Limited social skills
Children with autism may struggle with all the above, just a few from that list or have other difficulties and challenges. I came across the saying the other day ‘If you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism’. Each child has completely different strengths, challenges, and capabilities.
But it’s not often that motor skills come up in all the infamous ‘Autism requirement checklists’ that appear when you are seeking advice and clarity about this diagnosis. If they do, it never seems to go in to as much depth as the other ASD related challenges. So, while it can be a bit tricky to understand the depth that they are affected there seems to be a common consensus that Autism in fact can and does reflect a delay in fine motor development.
What are fine motor skills?
Fine motor skills are the ability to make movements using the small muscles in our hands and wrists, to be able to coordinate these small muscle groups with competence and precision.
We consistently use our fine motor skills for daily activities as they aid in many of self-help tasks such as eating, dressing, cooking, and brushing teeth. They are essential life skills that begin to develop as early as 1 to 2 months old and continue to progress and evolve naturally over time (in a perfect world that is). Some children struggle with fine motor development due to many factors and this seems to become more prominent the older they get.
A delay in fine motor development will affect many areas, for children this may look like
-struggling to use utensils to eat
-poor coordination with intrinsic movements using their hands
-difficulty with self-help skills
-challenges with holding a pencil and writing
So, does Autism affect motor skills? And why?
Studies have shown that autistic children often do have a delay and some form of difficulty with fine motor development. It doesn’t seem to be one of the more prominent key signs, but it is quite a common characteristic. Sometimes a delay in this area isn’t actually noticed until children are at school, when they are ‘expected’ to be able to hold a pencil correctly. Early fine motor development is crucial for when children begin to start to learn to write, perhaps there was always a delay, but it wasn’t noticed and necessarily thought to be related to autism at the time.
So, why is there a link?
It’s believed that fine motor development is affected due to the neurological differences and connectivity between brain regions, how much does this affect motor skills though and to what extent?
I know through observing my own daughter how difficult it is for her to manage her emotions if she is having difficulty with something. Yes, she has cerebral palsy but when working on fine motor skills I often think ‘Gosh if only her autism wasn’t holding her back’. I see her just not being able to keep regulated and her mood immediately gets heightened and then pushing her to try to keep trying is almost laughable. I think children with autism can be overwhelmed by aspects of fine motor activities, this in turn could be a contributing factor in a delay in this area of development.
Perhaps it’s also a neglected part of autism? I know when I worked in an early childcare setting if a child was struggling with fine motor skills this never raised any ‘autism red flags’ for the educators. It could be that educators, parents and even professionals focus a lot on the emotional, social and behaviour aspects of autism?
Fine motor activities
When working on fine motor activities for autism there are a few handy tips to keep in mind.
-Ensure the environment is free from distraction
-End with some sensory reinforcement
-Minimise noise and use noise cancellation headphones if required
-Keep sessions short
-Use materials that won’t cause frustration
-Try activities that they will have some success with
-Give their fingers and hands a stretch prior (deep pressure – create alertness and stimulation)
-Praise efforts rather than results
The ideas for activities to practice the development of fine motor skills is quite extensive, so many ways to entice and motivate your little ones. Here are a few popular ideas.
-Threading. This is a great activity to not only practice fine motor skills, but it also works on bimanual skills. A go to option is often beads and string but the choices are never-ending for threading. Large wooden beads onto paintbrushes, small beads onto feathers, straws onto string, pasta onto string, buttons onto pipe cleaners….
-Playdough. The benefits of playdough are endless; it's calming, encourages creativity, stimulates the senses and it’s a great way to work on fine motor development.
So many different elements of play that enhance building up hand muscles and strength. Manipulating, rolling, flattening, and moulding are all working on fine motor strength and control. It is so simple to make, and the ingredients can all be found in your kitchen cupboard!
If the usual playdough tools aren’t motivating enough, think outside the box and get creative. It’s quite often that children on the spectrum have interests that fascinate them so bring this into play.
-Making car tracks along the playdough
-Creating small words
-Counting how many balls they can roll
-Making crazy creatures
-Writing in playdough with toothpicks
-Kitchen items (cookie cutters, bowls, plastic knives)
Pegs. Any activity in which pegs are used is a great way to work on fine motor development and there is just something so appealing about pegs for kids.
The pinching action required from the thumb and finger is great for building up strength in those small finger muscles and assists in the development of a good finger grip.
Pegs to hang dolls clothes, to place around a paper plate, to match colours on paint cards….
Scissors. To competently use scissors takes practice and quite advanced fine motor skills and coordination. But there are many different types of ‘modified’ scissors that can assist children who are a little delayed. Often it can be frustrating when starting out to try cutting paper, its flimsy and hard to coordinate when the focus is on the cutting, so cardboard is a better option. Cooked spaghetti, playdough, straws, pipecleaners, paper plates and a variety of other craft materials are super motivating materials to practice cutting.
Drawing. By simply offering multiple ways and opportunities to draw we encourage pencil grasp development and fine motor practice. A good idea is to use crayons as the writing tool as it requires a little more pressure which is good to strengthen finger muscles. If paper and crayons simply won’t cut it how about, whiteboard textas on windows or mirrors, bath crayons in the shower or chalk on concrete.