In the most recent issue of Pediatric Physical Therapy there are three articles regarding autism/autism spectrum disorder and gross motor skills. I was actually really excited to see this because I sometimes feel that gross motor skills get put on the lower end of the priority scale for kids who are diagnosed with autism, autism spectrum disorder, or PDD-NOS. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are only so many hours in a day and there are so many areas that you need to prioritize for your child’s development. Gross motor is easy to overlook especially if they are walking and able to get around independently.
I just thought I would take a moment to highlight some of the benefits of working on gross motor skills with children who are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
- Strength and posture – Generally kids with this diagnosis have lower muscle tone. This low muscle tone can cause them to fatigue quicker, have challenges with postural control, and make learning new tasks more demanding (which can make it harder). Working on activities to develop core strength and overall muscle strength will help with these challenges which can aid them in paying attention in school because of improved posture, trying out new skills, playing longer with their peers during active play. In addition, fine motor skills and speech skills can improve as a result of improved strength and muscular endurance as well as opportunities for active play.
- Coordination – Learning new skills can be challenging because of weakness and low muscle tone as mentioned above, however it can also be challenging if it is hard to organize all the pieces that make up a skill. For example, jumping jacks involve jumping, arm movements, leg movements and timing/rhythm. Just one of these components may be challenging so being able to practice breaking down the pieces of the task and then as they master the pieces putting them back together for the whole motion can help your child to achieve the skill in a more timely manner and with less frustration.
- Social skills – I have worked with several kiddos who are diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and concerns with families are often around their ability to interact with their peers and play. Because learning new skills may be challenging that can make it harder to keep up with peers as they continually evolve their play and gross motor skills. For example, jumping is a skill that kids love to do when they figure it out. If your kiddo is having trouble jumping they may be missing out on valuable opportunities to relate to their peers in a play based way. Same with bike riding or even being able to participate in PE or recess.
- Sensory – Depending on your child’s sensory needs, adding in gross motor play will allow your child the opportunity to get a variety of sensory experiences such as proprioceptive feedback to their joints (which can also help to keep low tone muscles ‘awake’), vestibular input to their inner ear from moving up, down and around, as well as tactile input from the various surfaces they may come in contact with during play. Let’s Play and Get Messy! touches on some of the sensory aspects of play.
I am definitely not writing this to tell you to add one more thing onto your already busy and probably completely scheduled days, but just to help you look for opportunities to add gross motor practice into your day. If your child is working with other professionals you can ask them to include some gross motor into their activities. Or maybe find out from their teacher what their peers are doing on the playground or in PE so you can have ideas for active play in your household