Motor deficits in autism differ from that of developmental coordination disorder


Marie Martel, Livio Finos, Salam Bahmad, Eric Koun


Autism spectrum disorders and developmental coordination disorders are both associated with sensorimotor impairments, yet their nature and specificity remain unknown. In order to clearly distinguish the specificity between the two disorders, children with autism spectrum disorder or developmental coordination disorder presenting the same degree of motor impairment, thus homogeneous profiles, were examined in a reach-to-displace paradigm, which allows the integrity of two main aspects of motor control (anticipation/feedforward control and movement correction/feedback control) to be separately interrogated. We manipulated children’s previous knowledge of the weight of the object they were to displace: when known, participants could anticipate the consequences of the weight when reaching for the object, prior to contact with it, thus allowing for feedforward control. Conversely, when unknown prior to contact, participants had to cope with the object weight in the displacing phase of the movement, and use feedback control. Results revealed a preserved feedforward control, but an impaired movement execution (atypical slowness) in children with developmental coordination disorder, while children with autism spectrum disorder displayed the opposite pattern with an impaired feedforward control, but a preserved feedback one. These findings shed light on how specific motor impairments might differently characterize developmental disorders and call for motor rehabilitation programmes adapted to each population. Lay abstract A vast majority of individuals with autism spectrum disorder experience impairments in motor skills. Those are often labelled as additional developmental coordination disorder despite the lack of studies comparing both disorders. Consequently, motor skills rehabilitation programmes in autism are often not specific but rather consist in standard programmes for developmental coordination disorder. Here, we compared motor performance in three groups of children: a control group, an autism spectrum disorder group and a developmental coordination disorder group. Despite similar level of motor skills evaluated by the standard movement assessment battery for children, in a Reach-to-Displace Task, children with autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder showed specific motor control deficits. Children with autism spectrum disorder failed to anticipate the object properties, but could correct their movement as well as typically developing children. In contrast, children with developmental coordination disorder were atypically slow, but showed a spared anticipation. Our study has important clinical implications as motor skills rehabilitations are crucial to both populations. Specifically, our findings suggest that individuals with autism spectrum disorder would benefit from therapies aiming at improving their anticipation, maybe through the support of their preserved representations and use of sensory information. Conversely, individuals with developmental coordination disorder would benefit from a focus on the use of sensory information in a timely fashion.