Infant movement skills and autism

Poorer movement skills detected as early as 7 months old are observed in children at a higher risk of developing Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than children in the general population.

These findings are being presented today at the British Psychological Society Developmental Section annual conference in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The study was carried out by a team led by Dr. Elisabeth Hill at Goldsmiths (University of London), Dr. Hayley Leonard (Goldsmiths) and the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS) based at Birkbeck University of London.  The researchers examined infants with a diagnosed older sibling with ASD. Siblings are known to share a higher risk of developing the disorder.

The researchers assessed the infants using a longitudinal follow-up design at 7, 14, and 24 months. Two groups of infants participated in the study:

  1. 54 infants at-risk of a diagnosis of ASD based on a sibling diagnosis
  2. 50 low-risk infants without a diagnosed sibling.

The infants were assessed on a range of standardised measures of motor skills. Parent reports were also documented.

Statistical analyses revealed that the at-risk group had significantly poorer motor skills than the low-risk group detected as early as 7 months old. Both gross motor skills such as the ability to hold up the head/roll over/walk and fine motor skills such as grasping and manipulating small objects were found to be poorer in the group of children at-risk for the disorder. This poorer motor ability was still evident at the 24 month assessment stage.

Dr Leonard said: “These data are extremely important because even if the at-risk infants do not go on to be diagnosed with ASD, research suggests that poorer motor development could have a negative impact on their language, social and cognitive development over time.

"This poorer motor development could impact on their development of social skills, school achievement and longer-term employment outcomes”.

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