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 In Autism, Blog

What motivates a child to learn how to communicate? Some research indicates that toddlers who learn to walk earlier also learn how to communicate sooner than their peers. This connection between motor skills and language development is not yet well understood, but it may offer clues into some of the communication deficits found in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A study from New York-Presbyterian Hospital finds that gross motor and language development are correlated in children with ASD. The findings could lead to early interventions to limit the severity of ASD’s communication issues.

To find out how motor development and language skills are linked in ASD, the researchers evaluated 158 children with ASD and 51 children suspected of having ASD using standardized motor and cognitive assessments. They asked the children’s parents to provide information about when their children began walking. When the children were aged two, three, five, and nine years, parents completed questionnaire’s about their children’s language development.

Children with ASD who struggle with gross motor skills like sitting up, crawling, and walking also have difficulties learning to speak and understand words. The initial analysis suggested that children who learned to walk later struggled more to understand or say words. However, when the researchers controlled for overall gross motor skills, cognitive ability, and symptom severity, this analysis did not hold up. When the researchers broadened their analysis, evaluating the relationship between gross motor skills and the rate of language development, they discovered a pattern. Children who scored the lowest on motor ability tests at age two had slower language development than children with better motor skills. This relationship persisted even when controlling for other factors.

The results offer an alternative perspective on language development in ASD. “Most of the time, when we’re talking about language development in autism, we’re not talking about language as a motor skill. We’re talking about language as a cognitive and social skills. Those are two very important aspects of language, but there are also motor aspects,” explains lead investigator Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

The study suggests that early motor deficits could be at the root of language problems in autism. It may be that early interventions for motor skills would benefit communication in children with ASD.

This research is published in the journal Autism Research.

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