Motor Delays and Autism – And Seeking Competence

In the last week, there has been press about a study on very young autistic children. The study claims to show that both gross and fine motor skills are delayed in autistic children. This is neither a surprising finding nor a new finding – although looking at children this young (14 to 33 months!) may be. One does wonder how a 14 month old child can be diagnosed with autism.

A soccer (football) ball. This is something I could not interact with in any sort of interesting way. I still can't. Licensed GNU Free Documentation License 1.2. Credit goes to Sir James and Christopher Bruno via Wikimedia Commons.

A soccer (football) ball. This is something I could not interact with in any sort of interesting way. I still can’t.
Licensed GNU Free Documentation License 1.2. Credit goes to Sir James and Christopher Bruno via Wikimedia Commons.

But, regardless, it’s well known that autistics usually aren’t particularly athletic or coordinated. Certainly, not all autistics (there probably are autistic professional athletes), but enough of us are un-athletic and uncoordinated that it’s part of some diagnostic criteria.

For me, I know I can personally speak of two issues I have – the first is simply getting my body to do what I want it to do, in response to sensory input, fast enough.  That’s always been an issue, which I believe affects my fine motor skills in particular.  But my second issue is something I suspect may be less common among autistics (but certainly not unique to just me) – a general lack of any reasonable voluntary “fast twitch” type of muscle movement.

The first is why it took years for me to handle handwriting (I’ll note that when I started getting the hang of it and started learning cursive, I actually got rebuked by a teacher for learning a letter that I wasn’t formally taught yet – and people wonder why our education system stinks!).  The second is why, to this day, I can’t do anything that requires fast movement, even if it doesn’t also require processing lots of sensory input.  For instance, I can’t hit a punching bag hard or kick something hard.  I certainly can’t throw anything.  I was always last in my class for running.  I can’t jump high or long or whatever else.  Yet, at least for my lower body, it isn’t because I lack strength – I have very strong legs.  It’s because I can’t do anything with muscle movement quickly.  When you combine sensory processing and fast movement – hitting a ball with a baseball bat – I am hopeless (I’ve never done this – and I did try!).

There’s also a third issue – my upper body is extremely weak, and seems to resist muscle mass building (I spent three years lifting weights – never progressing on the upper body, despite good training advice and plenty of change in my lower body).

I was sort of lucky, in that I had lots of what would now probably be called sensory integration therapy as a child to help with coordination and such. I’m not sure how much it did or didn’t help me, but certainly I had lots of it. But they missed something: there were things I was good at.  I wasn’t miserable at everything, just miserable at pretty much everything you might do on recess or in physical education class.

But I was good at some things – I’ve always been good piloting pretty much any type of vehicle. It took me a while to learn how to ride a bicycle (probably because I believed people’s explanations on how to do it – which research has shown conclusively is generally not only hogwash, but which is actually impossible to do – read about countersteering – and never mind training wheels encourage this bad learning). And certainly with other vehicles, there was a learning curve – it’s complicated to learn to drive, for instance. But I learned at a fairly typical pace. And this is true with other vehicles too – I can do basic plane flight (and did a substantial portion of my flight training, but, sadly, ran out of money at that stage of my life!), motor boating, motorcycling, ATV riding, etc.  I can tow – and reverse – a trailer better then most people I know.  Obviously these things require motor skills.  So why can I do this?

Well, a lot of this is stuff that doesn’t require a lot of fast movement. That said, the countersteering movement needed on a bicycle or motorcycle is a pretty quick movement. But, in general, slow and smooth is better for these things. Sadly, I think the common expectation is that someone with poor coordination couldn’t possibly drive a car (and certainly couldn’t fly a plane!). This coordination thing is seen as a global sliding scale, applicable to all areas of coordination. Yet I remember learning to ride a motorcycle in motorcycle training – I had significantly less trouble than many of the other students, despite the fact that it was likely that every one of them would be rated as having more coordination than me, in a general sense.

My wife has a theory – and I have to agree: that we’re often good at things that people expect to need to be taught, but bad at discovering how to do things on our own that other people might learn “automatically.” Obviously, I know I can’t be taught some things, and I’ve also made plenty of discoveries – how to walk, for instance (I started walking at a very young age – the only milestone I met early).  Bicycling is another one that I learned by discovery on my own (much like most people do), albeit years slower than my peers (my peers figured out countersteering subconsciously, as I eventually did too, but it took a lot longer). But riding a motorcycle was a quick and easy process for me. So was learning the basics of flying a plane. I did better than average at both.  I could succeed – and actually get quite good at these things.

I think this is where the adults in my life failed when I was a child. There were things I was or could be good at. In Junior High, I remember running a mile and a half in a time that beat the vast majority of my classmates – as a result of personal conditioning I was doing at the time. I wasn’t the fastest kid, but I wasn’t the slowest either. Because the teacher was so used to seeing me in last place in everything, he actually accused me of cheating and made a point of counting laps the next time we ran (he found I was being honest; no, he didn’t bother apologizing). He assumed that because I couldn’t sprint, I couldn’t run longer distances – yet I had plenty of strength, endurance, and an efficient cardovascular system. I had what was needed for long distance running – not at a highly competitive level, but certainly substantially better than average. This was missed. So were so many other possible areas where I could be successful.

That’s part of my concern with the idea that autistics are just uncoordinated. Maybe we are. But that doesn’t mean that we are in everything. I would hope that when parents, teachers, and therapists work with us, they would not only look at our weaknesses, but also our strengths. For children with low confidence and too many failures, having an adult recognize someone’s strong abilities is important. Giving us a chance to, if not win, at least make a good showing is important. I was last in pretty much every sport – because the sports I was good at weren’t what we did in school. That sucks – it certainly (along with PE teachers that shouldn’t have been anywhere near a child) made me hate athletics with a passion.

Fortunately, I made these discoveries on my own – I do have skills that were unrecognized, and which I developed despite neglect by people who should have been able to see them. It’s my hope that one day it will be the goal of adults in the lives if children to not only find things where the autistic child does bad, but also find those areas to grow and nurture where there is natural talent and ability. There is a lot more here than too many adults & professionals think. And of course this is true well beyond simply athletic ability.

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