How Does Autism Affect a Child Physically?

While the disorder is mostly associated with social and behavioral difficulties, many children with autism also experience physical symptoms. In this article, we will explore how autism affects a child physically.

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Published By Ruben Kesherim
January 9, 2024

How Does Autism Affect a Child Physically?

Understanding Autism and Motor Skills Development

To comprehend the connection between autism and motor skills development, it is essential to first have a clear understanding of what autism is and how motor skills develop in children.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and varying degrees of impairment.

Individuals with autism may experience challenges in social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests. Additionally, they may exhibit unique sensory sensitivities.

Overview of Motor Skills Development in Children

Motor skills development refers to the progressive acquisition of movement abilities and coordination. It can be broadly categorized into two types: fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

  • Fine motor skills involve the control and coordination of small muscles, particularly those in the hands and fingers. These skills are crucial for tasks such as writing, using utensils, buttoning clothes, and tying shoelaces.
  • Gross motor skills, on the other hand, involve the coordination and control of larger muscle groups, enabling activities like walking, running, jumping, and throwing.

In typically developing children, motor skills develop gradually and sequentially. Infants start by gaining control over their head and neck, followed by rolling, sitting, crawling, and eventually walking. Fine motor skills, such as grasping objects and using utensils, also progress alongside gross motor skills.

However, in children with autism, motor skills development may be affected due to the unique characteristics of the disorder. The challenges faced by individuals with autism can impact their ability to acquire and refine motor skills, both fine and gross. These challenges can vary from person to person, as autism is a spectrum disorder with a wide range of abilities and difficulties.

By understanding the fundamentals of autism and motor skills development, we can delve deeper into the specific challenges experienced by individuals with autism and explore strategies for supporting their motor skills development.

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Motor Skills Challenges in Autism

Children with autism often experience challenges in the development of motor skills, which can impact both fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscles, particularly those in the hands and fingers, to perform precise movements. Children with autism may face difficulties in various areas of fine motor skills, including:

  • Manual Dexterity: They may struggle with tasks that require precise finger movements, such as buttoning clothes, tying shoelaces, or manipulating small objects.
  • Hand-eye Coordination: Difficulties in hand-eye coordination can affect activities like catching a ball, using utensils, or writing.
  • Grip Strength: Some children with autism may have weaker grip strength, making it challenging to hold and control objects.

To support the development of fine motor skills, occupational therapy can be beneficial. Occupational therapists work with children to improve hand strength, coordination, and dexterity through a variety of activities tailored to their specific needs. Additionally, incorporating activities that promote fine motor skills into daily routines can further enhance their progress.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills involve the coordination of larger muscle groups to perform movements such as walking, running, jumping, and balancing. Children with autism may face challenges in the development of gross motor skills, which can affect their overall physical abilities. Some areas of difficulty may include:

  • Balance and Coordination: Children with autism may struggle with balance, coordination, and body awareness, which can impact activities like riding a bike, climbing stairs, or participating in sports.
  • Motor Planning: Difficulties in motor planning can make it challenging to perform sequenced movements or learn new motor tasks.
  • Muscle Tone: Some children with autism may experience muscle tone abnormalities, such as low muscle tone (hypotonia) or high muscle tone (hypertonia), which can affect their overall motor skills.

Physical therapy is often recommended to help children with autism improve their gross motor skills. Physical therapists can work with them to develop strength, coordination, balance, and body awareness through targeted exercises and activities.

Understanding the specific challenges in fine motor skills and gross motor skills can help parents and caregivers provide appropriate support and interventions to enhance their child's motor skills development.

Seeking professional guidance from occupational therapists and physical therapists can play a crucial role in addressing these challenges and promoting optimal motor skills development in children with autism.

Factors Influencing Motor Skills Development in Autism

When it comes to motor skills development in individuals with autism, several factors can impact their progress and abilities. Understanding these factors is crucial for providing appropriate support and intervention.

Let's explore three key factors that influence motor skills development in autism: sensory processing difficulties, executive functioning challenges, and co-occurring conditions.

Sensory Processing Difficulties

Sensory processing difficulties are commonly observed in individuals with autism and can significantly impact motor skills development. Sensory processing refers to how the brain interprets and responds to sensory information from the environment.

For individuals with autism, sensory stimuli such as touch, sound, or light may be experienced differently, leading to sensory sensitivities or sensory seeking behaviors.

These sensory processing difficulties can affect motor skills in various ways. For example, a child with hypersensitivity to touch may struggle with fine motor tasks that involve manipulating small objects.

On the other hand, a child with sensory seeking behaviors may benefit from activities that provide proprioceptive input to improve gross motor skills. Understanding and addressing sensory processing difficulties through occupational therapy can help individuals with autism improve their motor skills.

Executive Functioning Challenges

Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that help individuals plan, organize, and execute tasks. Difficulties in executive functioning are commonly observed in individuals with autism and can impact their motor skills development. Challenges in areas such as impulse control, working memory, and flexible thinking can affect a child's ability to learn and perform motor tasks effectively.

For example, a child with autism may struggle with motor planning and have difficulty coordinating movements for activities like riding a bike or tying shoelaces. They may also find it challenging to switch between tasks or adapt their movements in response to changes in the environment.

Occupational therapy can provide strategies and interventions to support executive functioning skills and improve motor skills development in individuals with autism.

Co-occurring Conditions

Many individuals with autism often have co-occurring conditions that can further impact their motor skills development.

These conditions may include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disabilities, or genetic disorders. The presence of these additional conditions can introduce additional challenges and complexities to motor skills development.

For instance, a child with autism and ADHD may struggle with attention and focus, making it harder for them to participate in activities that require sustained effort and concentration.

Similarly, a child with autism and intellectual disabilities may face difficulties in learning and executing complex motor tasks. It is essential to consider and address these co-occurring conditions when designing interventions and support strategies for motor skills development in individuals with autism.

Understanding the influence of sensory processing difficulties, executive functioning challenges, and co-occurring conditions on motor skills development in autism is vital for providing effective support and intervention. Occupational therapy, in collaboration with other therapies such as physical therapy and speech therapy, can play a significant role in addressing these factors and promoting optimal motor skills development in individuals with autism.

Strategies for Supporting Motor Skills Development

When it comes to supporting motor skills development in individuals with autism, there are several therapeutic approaches that can be beneficial. Occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy are three strategies commonly used to address motor skills challenges and promote overall development.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy focuses on helping individuals develop the skills necessary for everyday activities and tasks. In the context of autism and motor skills development, occupational therapists work with individuals to improve their fine motor skills, coordination, and sensory processing abilities.

Through a combination of play-based activities and structured exercises, occupational therapists help individuals with autism develop skills such as handwriting, using utensils, dressing, and other tasks that require hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.

The specific interventions used in occupational therapy may vary depending on the individual's needs and goals. Therapists may incorporate activities that stimulate the senses, such as playing with textured materials or engaging in sensory integration exercises. By addressing sensory processing difficulties, occupational therapy can help improve motor skills and overall functioning.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy focuses on improving gross motor skills and enhancing overall physical functioning. For individuals with autism, physical therapy can help address challenges related to balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility.

Physical therapists use a variety of techniques and exercises to promote motor skill development. These may include activities that improve core strength, balance, and coordination, such as jumping, climbing, and balancing exercises. By targeting specific motor skills, physical therapy can help individuals with autism improve their ability to perform tasks such as walking, running, and playing sports.

In addition to addressing motor skills, physical therapy can also support individuals with autism in areas such as posture, gait, and muscle tone abnormalities.

Speech Therapy

While speech therapy primarily focuses on communication skills, it can also play a role in supporting motor skills development in individuals with autism. Speech therapists work on oral motor skills, which involve the muscles used for speech and swallowing. By targeting these muscles, speech therapy can help improve overall motor coordination and control.

Speech therapists may use exercises and techniques to improve oral motor skills, such as blowing bubbles, tongue exercises, and swallowing exercises. These activities can enhance muscle strength and coordination, benefiting not only speech production but also overall motor skills development.

Additionally, speech therapy can address feeding difficulties that may be present in individuals with autism.

By utilizing a combination of occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy, individuals with autism can receive comprehensive support for their motor skills development. These therapeutic interventions, tailored to meet individual needs, can make a significant difference in improving motor skills, coordination, and overall physical functioning.

Practical Tips for Parents

Parents play a crucial role in supporting the motor skills development of their child with autism. By creating a supportive environment, incorporating motor skills activities into daily life, and seeking professional guidance, parents can help their child thrive and reach their fullest potential.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Creating a supportive environment at home can greatly benefit a child with autism in developing their motor skills. Here are some practical tips for parents:

  • Designate a safe and organized space where your child can explore and engage in various physical activities.
  • Minimize clutter and distractions in the environment to promote focus and concentration.
  • Use visual supports, such as schedules and visual cues, to help your child understand and follow routines.
  • Establish consistent routines and provide clear and concise instructions to help your child feel secure and understand expectations.
  • Encourage independence by setting up age-appropriate challenges and providing opportunities for your child to practice and refine their motor skills.

Incorporating Motor Skills Activities in Daily Life

Incorporating motor skills activities into your child's daily life can foster their physical development and enhance their overall well-being. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Encourage active play and participation in sports or recreational activities that align with your child's interests and abilities. This can include activities such as swimming, biking, or playing catch.
  • Integrate fine motor skills activities into your child's routine, such as puzzles, coloring, building blocks, or arts and crafts projects.
  • Engage in sensory-based activities, such as playing with playdough, using tactile materials, or engaging in sensory walks, to promote sensory processing and coordination.
  • Encourage your child to engage in activities that promote balance, coordination, and body awareness, such as yoga, dancing, or balancing exercises.

Seeking Professional Guidance

Seeking professional guidance is essential in supporting your child's motor skills development.

Occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy are valuable resources that can provide specialized interventions and strategies tailored to your child's specific needs. These professionals can assess your child's motor skills, provide therapy sessions, and guide you with individualized home exercises and activities.

It's important to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team, including therapists, educators, and medical professionals, to ensure a comprehensive approach to your child's motor skills development. They can offer insights into your child's progress, suggest appropriate interventions, and provide guidance on addressing specific challenges.

Remember, every child with autism is unique, and their motor skills development may vary. Patience, consistency, and a supportive environment are key. By implementing these practical tips and seeking professional guidance, you can support your child on their journey to achieving their full potential.

FAQs

Can physical therapy help children with autism improve their motor skills?

Yes, physical therapy can be an effective way to improve the motor skills of children with autism.

A physical therapist can work with the child to develop a personalized treatment plan that targets specific areas of difficulty, such as balance or coordination. Physical therapy can also help children with autism become more confident in their movement abilities.

Are there any medications that can help alleviate gastrointestinal issues in children with autism?

While there is no medication specifically designed to treat gastrointestinal issues in children with autism, some medications may be prescribed to help manage certain symptoms. For example, laxatives may be prescribed for chronic constipation, and anti-diarrheal medication may be prescribed for diarrhea.

Are there any alternative therapies that can help improve sensory processing issues in children with autism?

Yes, there are several alternative therapies that have been shown to be effective in improving sensory processing issues in children with autism.

These include occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, and therapeutic listening programs. It is important to note that not all alternative therapies are backed by scientific evidence and should be discussed with a healthcare professional before being pursued.

Can food sensitivities cause behavioral issues in children with autism?

Yes, research has shown that food sensitivities can contribute to behavioral issues in some children with autism. When a child consumes a food they are sensitive to, it can trigger an inflammatory response in the body which may exacerbate existing behavioral symptoms. Identifying and eliminating these foods from the child's diet may lead to improvements in behavior and overall wellbeing.

Conclusion

Autism can have a wide range of physical effects on a child, from delayed motor skills development to gastrointestinal issues. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of these potential physical symptoms and to work with healthcare providers to address them. With the right support and intervention, children with autism can lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

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