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.

Sports-seasonal Affective Disorder

While this is an autistic blog, I do recognize that there are many different types of neurological conditions, such as neurotypicality.  Neurotypicality, as you may know, affects 96% of the world’s population.  You probably have friends and relatives that daily live with neurotypicality.  One commonly associated disorder is Sports-seasonal Affective Disorder, or SSAD.

SSAD affects mostly males, with different symptom clusters broken down roughly by geography.  For instance, in the USA, SSAD symptoms peak in the “NFL Playoffs” but run throughout much of the late summer to early winter.  In other places, SSAD peaks at different times of the year, but we haven’t fully discovered the reasons for this.

During a SSAD symptom peak, a sufferer may find himself compelled to draw away from his family, particularly the opposite sex, and seek out other SSAD suffers, often at a large SSAD complex (“stadium”).  In some cases, SSAD sufferers self-medicate with alcohol.  Alcohol intake however is not based on a rational decision-making process, but instead a symptom of the disease.  For instance, one sufferer may self-medicate because “my team lost” while another self-medicates “in celebration of the victory.”  As can be seen, this is not logical!

SSAD sufferers often feel a compulsion to “not miss” a game, and may travel great distances at great expense in search of an elusive, temporary feeling.

In most cases, the symptoms are seasonal, but in severe cases the symptoms are present year-round, often manifesting in different time periods with different symptom clusters (“NFL-type” vs. “NBA-type”, for instance).

Also, a sense of perspective may be lost and others may be blamed for the patient’s mood swings.  For instance, one autistic brother of a SSAD sufferer reported that his brother “ranted for over a week about how a referee’s bad call destroyed ‘his’ team’s chances.”  Note that the SSAD sufferer did not actually own any team but still displayed a possessive attitude.

What can you do to help?  Sadly, there isn’t much we can do.  While autistics can also have SSAD, it seems most associated with neurotypicality and perhaps an excess of testosterone.  Most treatment options, except in extremely severe manifestations of SSAD, involve “waiting out” the season.  While it is tough to watch your loved one screaming incomprehensible words at a television, know that it is likely only a temporary episode and will soon pass.  In other cases, the affected may feel an urge to dress up and pretend to both be much younger (typically pretending to be in his early 20s) and more athletic than he is in real life.  In some cases, the person may even choose to change the color of his skin.  There are even internet sites where suffers compare notes on this type of disconnected-with-reality play.  While this manifestation is hard for outsiders to understand, it rarely is a symptom of more severe problems and can be left untreated for most individuals.

For family members unaffected, it’s best to seek respite care as needed to cope with your loved ones flare-ups.  In particular, many family members have found a “night out” on so-called “game” days can be a huge stress reliever.  Of course it’s important to remember that sometimes during the flare-ups, those affected can require help with basic life functioning and may need help with tasks such as food preparation and comfort during times when the binary nature of the syndrome cause downward mood swings (you’ll be keyed into such events such by your loved one using phrases such “the game was stolen” or “how could he miss that catch?”).

As autistics, we can help our family members by realizing that SSAD is not a choice.  We don’t yet know what causes it – it’s believed both genetics and social factors are involved, but we don’t believe it’s caused by bad parenting.  Most symptoms pass within hours, so it’s possible to manage a full life even in the presence of a SSAD suffers.  In fact, many SSAD sufferers have relatively normal employment histories and can even live relatively independently.  Some lucky SSAD sufferers find understanding mates and even successfully raise children (there is a risk of inheriting SSAD, but most doctors agree that the additional risk of a SSAD sufferer being born to a parent with SSAD is relatively small – SSAD children are often born to non-affected parents as well).

I hope this helps you understand this complex and puzzling condition.

Unfair Disability Advantage?

There’s a bit of controversy over one of this year’s 400 meter Olympic runners.  Oscar Pistorius of South Africa is competing on artificial legs.  Some have questioned whether his legs make him faster than non-disabled athletes, although the scientific evidence is a bit mixed.

For a bit on the story, see this Star Tribune opinion piece.

It’s a bit ironic since normally we face the issue of being seen as less able than non-disabled peers.  In this case, he’s seen as more able.  There are lots of other interesting questions here too, such as, what differences are “unfair” in the Olympics?  After all, Olympic athletes are unusual, and have unusual differences that let them compete at an amazing level far beyond the abilities of most of the rest of us.