New research aims to better understand motor problems in children with ASD

Anjana Bhat, associate professor in the University of Delaware's Department of Physical Therapy, has been awarded a research project (R01) grant through the National Institutes of Health for the next three years.

Bhat will look at a timely SPARK study dataset of 24,000 school-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The goal of Bhat's grant-funded research is to better understand motor problems in children with ASD – their prevalence and relationship to other problems in ASD.

Bhat hopes to alter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of ASD, which includes social communication and repetitive behavior problems but not motor problems.

Including motor impairments within the definition of ASD would bring it onto the radar of diagnosticians who could screen for motor delays or refer the child for further motor evaluation and treatment."

Anjana Bhat, Associate Professor, University of Delaware

Therapies are largely directed at social communication but not motor problems, which are seen in 87% of children in the SPARK sample, which is the largest ASD cohort in the U.S. The earliest delays in children with ASD are in their motor skills, and those deficiencies increase as time goes on. Bhat says that gap is not being addressed.

"Only 32% of children with ASD receive PT [physical therapy], and 13% receive recreational therapies to address their gross-motor problems," she says. "In contrast, 80% receive speech or OT [occupational therapy] therapies for speech or fine-motor problems. Movement clinicians -- like OTs, PTs and adaptive physical educators -- have a role to play in improving motor skills of children with ASD. Access to these services should be made available to children who need them."

Bhat's project will study the associations between motor impairment, autism severity and comorbidities in children with ASD. She has found that motor problems are related to other ASD-related issues and specifically aims to "determine the risk for motor impairment in children with ASD and how that changes with increasing social communication impairment, repetitive behavior severity, comorbidities and levels of impairment using parent report measures."

Two of her recent papers argue why motor problems should be added to the definition of autism:

  • Is Motor Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder Distinct From Developmental Coordination Disorder? A Report From the SPARK Study
  • Motor Impairment Increases in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder as a Function of Social Communication, Cognitive and Functional Impairment, Repetitive Behavior Severity, and Comorbid Diagnoses: A SPARK Study Report

David Tulsky, director of the UD Center for Health Assessment Research and Translation (CHART), is the co-investigator, and Aaron Boulton, research assistant professor in CHART, is a collaborator on the grant.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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