Motor Impairment Indicators Shown in Children With Autism

Brain indicators of motor impairment were distinct among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), those with developmental coordination disorder (DCD), and controls, in a new study.

Previous research suggests that individuals with ASD overlap in motor impairment with those with DCD. But these two conditions may differ significantly in some areas, as children with ASD tend to show weaker skills in social motor tasks such as imitation, wrote Emil Kilroy, PhD, of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and colleagues.

The neurobiological basis of autism remains unknown, despite many research efforts, in part because of the heterogeneity of the disease, said corresponding author Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, PhD, also of the University of Southern California, in an interview.

Comorbidity with other disorders is a strong contributing factor to heterogeneity, and approximately 80% of autistic individuals have motor impairments and meet criteria for a diagnosis of DCD, said Aziz-Zadeh. “Controlling for other comorbidities, such as developmental coordination disorder, when trying to understand the neural basis of autism is important, so that we can understand which neural circuits are related to [core symptoms of autism] and which ones are related to motor impairments that are comorbid with autism, but not necessarily part of the core symptomology,” she explained. “We focused on white matter pathways here because many researchers now think the underlying basis of autism, besides genetics, is brain connectivity differences.”

In their study published in Scientific Reports, the researchers reviewed data from whole-brain correlational tractography for 22 individuals with autism spectrum disorder, 16 with developmental coordination disorder, and 21 normally developing individuals, who served as the control group. The mean age of the participants was approximately 11 years; the age range was 8-17 years.

Overall, patterns of brain diffusion (movement of fluid, mainly water molecules, in the brain) were significantly different in ASD children, compared with typically developing children.

The ASD group showed significantly reduced diffusivity in the bilateral fronto-parietal cingulum and the left parolfactory cingulum. This finding reflects previous studies suggesting an association between brain patterns in the cingulum area and ASD. But the current study is “the first to identify the fronto-parietal and the parolfactory portions of the cingulum as well as the anterior caudal u-fibers as specific to core ASD symptomatology and not related to motor-related comorbidity,” the researchers wrote.

Differences in brain diffusivity were associated with worse performance on motor skills and behavioral measures for children with ASD and children with DCD, compared with controls.

Motor development was assessed using the Total Movement Assessment Battery for Children-2 (MABC-2) and the Florida Apraxia Battery modified for children (FAB-M). The MABC-2 is among the most common tools for measuring motor skills and identifying clinically relevant motor deficits in children and teens aged 3-16 years. The test includes three subtest scores (manual dexterity, gross-motor aiming and catching, and balance) and a total score. Scores are based on a child’s best performance on each component, and higher scores indicate better functioning. In the new study, The MABC-2 total scores averaged 10.57 for controls, compared with 5.76 in the ASD group, and 4.31 in the DCD group.

Children with ASD differed from the other groups in social measures. Social skills were measured using several tools, including the Social Responsivity Scale (SRS Total), which is a parent-completed survey that includes a total score designed to reflect the severity of social deficits in ASD. It is divided into five subscales for parents to assess a child’s social skill impairment: social awareness, social cognition, social communication, social motivation, and mannerisms. Scores for the SRS are calculated in T-scores, in which a score of 50 represents the mean. T-scores of 59 and below are generally not associated with ASD, and patients with these scores are considered to have low to no symptomatology. Scores on the SRS Total in the new study were 45.95, 77.45, and 55.81 for the controls, ASD group, and DCD group, respectively.

Results Should Raise Awareness

“The results were largely predicted in our hypotheses – that we would find specific white matter pathways in autism that would differ from [what we saw in typically developing patients and those with DCD], and that diffusivity in ASD would be related to socioemotional differences,” Aziz-Zadeh said, in an interview.

“What was surprising was that some pathways that had previously been thought to be different in autism were also compromised in DCD, indicating that they were common to motor deficits which both groups shared, not to core autism symptomology,” she noted.

A message for clinicians from the study is that a dual diagnosis of DCD is often missing in ASD practice, said Aziz-Zadeh. “Given that approximately 80% of children with ASD have DCD, testing for DCD and addressing potential motor issues should be more common practice,” she said.

Aziz-Zadeh and colleagues are now investigating relationships between the brain, behavior, and the gut microbiome. “We think that understanding autism from a full-body perspective, examining interactions between the brain and the body, will be an important step in this field,” she emphasized.

The study was limited by several factors, including the small sample size, the use of only right-handed participants, and the use of self-reports by children and parents, the researchers noted. Additionally, they noted that white matter develops at different rates in different age groups, and future studies might consider age as a factor, as well as further behavioral assessments, they said.

Small Sample Size Limits Conclusions

“Understanding the neuroanatomic differences that may contribute to the core symptoms of ASD is a very important goal for the field, particularly how they relate to other comorbid symptoms and neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Michael Gandal, MD, of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and a member of the Lifespan Brain Institute at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in an interview.

“While this study provides some clues into how structural connectivity may relate to motor coordination in ASD, it will be important to replicate these findings in a much larger sample before we can really appreciate how robust these findings are and how well they generalize to the broader ASD population,” Gandal emphasized.

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Gandal had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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