In a new study published today in the journal Developmental Science, researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Vanderbilt University found that early motor experiences can shape infants' preferences for objects and faces. The study findings demonstrate that providing infants with "sticky mittens" to manipulate toys increases their subsequent interest in faces, suggesting advanced social development.
This study supports a growing body of evidence that early motor development and self-produced motor experiences contribute to infants' understanding of the social world around them. Conversely, this implies that when motor skills are delayed or impaired - as in autism - future social interactions and development could be negatively impacted.
"Our results provide us with a new way to think about typical, and also atypical, development," said Klaus Libertus, PhD, the study's lead author and a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute's Center for Autism and Related Disorders. "The mind is not independent from the body, especially during development. As motor skills advance, other domains follow suit, indicating strong connections between seemingly unrelated domains. Such connections have exciting implications, suggesting that interventions could target the motor domain to foster social development."
Previous research has found that infants diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show less interest in faces and social orienting. While the current study was conducted with typically developing infants, it indicates that infants who are at risk for ASD or show signs of abnormal social development may benefit from motor training as early as 3 months of age.
"For parents, this means that early motor development is very important and they should encourage motor experiences and active exploration by their child," said Dr. Libertus. "Fostering motor development doesn't have to be complex or require sticky mittens. Any interactions or games that encourage a child to develop independent motor skills are important."
In the study, the researchers divided 36, typically-developing, 3-month-old infants into two groups - one receiving active motor experiences and the other receiving passive experiences. Infants in the active group were given mittens affixed with strips of Velcro, known as "sticky mittens." The researchers observed as infants in the active group played with the "sticky mittens" for 10 minutes each day for two weeks. While wearing the mittens, a brief swipe of the infants' arm made toys, also covered in Velcro, "stick" as if the infant had successfully grasped the object. Parents first demonstrated this by attaching the toy to the mitten, but then the toy was removed and the infant was encouraged to independently reach for the toy again.
In the passive group, infants were fitted with aesthetically similar mittens and toys, but without Velcro. Passive infants also played with the mittens and toys for 10 minutes each day for two weeks, but were only passive observers as parents provided stimulation by moving the toy and touching it to the inside of the infants' palms.