If differences in motor development can be observed in young infants later diagnosed with autism, then there is potential to detect autism long before a child is old enough to socially interact or to start speaking. In several research studies, abnormal motor patterns were observed in every child that later was diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
The following are some areas of motor development where differences have been reported:
The child should equally use both arms and legs to push, reach and kick. Once the child starts rolling, he should be able to go to either side.
The absence of crawling or crawling with atypical patterns, such as bottom scooting or crawling with one foot up, is commonly reported.
Rolling with the back arched or rolling stiffly like a pencil has been observed.
Examples are the ATNR (arms go into “fencing position” in response to the head turning) and grasp reflex, which have a predictable timeline when they appear and then integrate into more mature movement patterns. As infants get older they should not get stuck in reflexive positions, but should be able to move in and out of them as they gain more postural control and motor skills.
Righting and Equilibrium Reactions
This includes tilt reactions, which is when the baby moves his eyes/head/body in response to gravity. For example, if you hold a 6 month old baby upright and tilt him to one side, his head would stay vertical. This reaction is also connected to the vestibular system, which connects the eyes and ears so that we can keep our eyes steady while we walk down the street. This area also includes protective reactions, which is when we automatically put our hands down to protect ourselves during a fall.
Out of a population of typically developing children, many of these patterns can also be observed as a normal variation. Additional research needs to differentiate which deviations, or how many deviations, are indicative of a developmental disorder. At this point we have limited research to go on. We don’t want to misdiagnose too many children as “at risk for autism.”
Children with the above differences in motor development may also be at risk of developing other neurological disorders, such as dyspraxia. There are many variations of movement and if for example a child does not crawl, but is otherwise typical in all other areas of development, parents should not be concerned. At the same time we cannot ignore the potential earlier identification and treatment for children who later are diagnosed with ASD, particularly when motor differences are observed in a baby sibling of a child with autism. Even if a child is not delayed in their motor skills, parents who feel like something is not right in their child’s movement patterns should address this with their pediatrician, a child neurologist, or have the child evaluated by an experienced pediatric physical therapist.