Sensorimotor Distinctions for People with Autism

August 23, 2021

Key Difference Exhibited in Rapid Processing Sensory Feedback

Sensorimotor skills involve the process of receiving sensory messages (sensory input) and producing a response (motor output). This process is the basis of many abilities, everything from handwriting to zipping up a coat to language development. Sensorimotor skills have significant implications for education and independence over a person’s lifetime. Since these skills have not been well understood for people with autism, a group of scientists at the University of Kansas decided to research this process. By investigating the fine motor control and eye movements of more than 200 people, both on the spectrum and neurotypical, the researchers were able to identify key differences in the ways that individuals with autism processed or reacted to stimuli compared to people without the disorder. They did this by using a precision grip test which prompted individuals to squeeze their thumb and forefinger together while reacting to objects on a monitor. A central finding of this study showed that timing matters when it comes to sensorimotor deficits for people on the spectrum. When motor adjustments were needed to be made rapidly, individuals with autism displayed pronounced deficits in contrast to the control group. However, for motor processes that occurred over a relatively long period of time, smaller differences were seen between the two groups. The study’s authors suggest that these findings may indicate that people with autism rely more heavily on slower feedback processes than neurotypical individuals. The study’s results also point to deficits in precision motor skills that may vary across ages and contexts for people with autism. For instance, the study demonstrated that precision grip movements at very low force like holding a pencil or buttoning a shirt were profoundly affected in very young children with autism compared to typically developing children. The study’s authors believe that recognizing difficulties with precision grip at a low force may help identify children at risk for autism, which could lead to earlier intervention. 

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