September 30, 2019
2 min read

Fine motor skill deficits may predict language delays in children with autism

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Photo of Vanessa Bal
Vanessa H. Bal

Fine motor skills were a key predictor of language outcomes in two longitudinal cohorts of language-delayed preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, according to findings published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

“Our study highlights the importance of capturing a comprehensive picture of a child with delays,” Vanessa H. Bal, PhD, the Karmazin and Lillard Chair in Adult Autism at Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “It is easy to be focused on language if a young child is not yet speaking, but we need to do assessments to understand the fuller picture of their strengths and challenges. It’s also important that we develop intervention programs that target multiple areas, not just those we think are delayed or impaired, to help them build intertwined skills that are important to development.”

According to Bal and colleagues, researchers previously estimated that 50% to 74% of preschoolers with ASD are minimally verbal. Therefore, it is important to understand which factors predict longer term expressive development in children with language delays, they wrote.

In their study, the researchers examined predictors of expressive language development among 86 children diagnosed with ASD and classified as language-delayed. They drew participants from two longitudinal cohorts — Early Diagnosis (EDX) and Pathways in ASD — and included children aged approximately 3 years who used single words or less during Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule testing. They used a predictive model to determine likely language level at age 19 based on predictors for a child aged 3 years. They then used linear mixed models to examine the samples and identify predictors of expressive communication trajectories from children aged 3 to 10.5 years and children aged 3 to 19 years.

Bal and colleagues found that significantly delayed fine motor skills were the strongest predictor of language at age 19, according to the predictive model. The linear mixed models revealed that time, age 3 fine motor skills and initiation of joint attention (IJA) predicted expressive communication trajectories in the EDX sample, even when controlling for age 3 visual receptive abilities, they wrote. Time and age 3 fine motor skills were significant predictors of expressive communication trajectories in the Pathways sample. However, IJA and cognitive skills were not significant predictors, the researchers noted.

“Longitudinal studies are invaluable in helping to understand development,” Bal said. “We need additional research in order to understand if the link between fine motor skills and language skills reflects associations with other motor deficits affecting speech, developmental cascades (eg, fine motor impairments affecting language learning opportunities), or other factors that affect development of both skill areas (eg, engagement with the environment).” – by Joe Gramigna

Disclosures: Bal reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.