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USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

By Mike McNulty

(Photo/Adobe Stock)

The results of a new study published in autism research show that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental coordination disorder (DCD) each have their own distinct patterns of social and motor skills, which also overlap in some cases.

The findings also support a growing body of evidence suggesting that certain movement patterns, although not currently used as diagnostic criteria for autism, may in fact be either a core feature of ASD or a very common comorbidity. in people with autism.

Photograph of Emily Kilroy's head

Emily Kilroy PhD ’18, Postdoc ’21, first author of new publication

“There are open questions in the field – whether there are characteristic motor patterns unique to autism, how they might be distinct from those seen in DCD, and whether they might inform screening tools and diagnosis” , said the paper’s lead author, Emily Kilroy PhD ’18, Postdoc ’21. “This article brings us closer to answering these questions.”

The study, led by Associate Professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, sought to identify common and unique patterns of motor and social impairment in ASD and DCD, how these patterns relate to each other, and how they relate to symptoms and experiences of children with autism. It was conducted as part of a five-year, $2.1 million project led by Aziz-Zadeh and funded by the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Aziz-Zadeh is a neuroscientist who studies, among other topics, how the sensory and motor regions of the brain are involved in processing aspects of higher cognition, including language, thought, emotion, empathy and social understanding. She is cross-appointed to USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Brain and Creativity Institute and the university’s Department of Psychology.

ASD is currently diagnosed based on a person’s experiences in two main areas: difficulties with social interaction or communication, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. In contrast, DCD is diagnosed on the basis of difficulty performing age-appropriate motor skills, which can then affect relationships and social experiences, especially for children.

“Most standard motor assessments cannot detect differences between the ASD and DCD groups,” Aziz-Zadeh said. “However, in this study, we were able to identify two motor skills that seem particularly difficult for young autistic children, even more so than for children with DCD, which may help scientists and clinicians better distinguish between conditions at the aid of motor measures.”

Researchers find gestures and skill imitation specific to autism

The researchers used standardized assessments and scales to measure the motor and social skills of 96 participants ages 8 to 17 in three study groups: typically developing children; children who have been diagnosed with ASD; and children who have been diagnosed with DCD.

Compared to typically developing children, ASD and TAC participants demonstrated greater difficulty performing their motor skills. However, the ASD group, compared to the DCD group, had significantly more difficulty with two particular tasks: making gestures in response to a verbal command (e.g. responding successfully when asked “can you tell the see you again?”) and imitate meaningful gestures (for example, successfully using their hand to imitate a hammering motion).

Head shot of Lisa Aziz-Zadeh

Associate Professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, lead author of the new publication

“This study identifies signature motor skills in ASD distinct from other comorbidities such as DCD,” Aziz-Zadeh said. “There are a number of implications for screening, diagnosis and interventions.”

The researchers also found that more than one in three children with DCD scored lower on the social skills assessment, even though social skills are not a diagnostic criterion for DCD. This suggests that interventions, such as occupational therapy, that focus specifically on developing social skills, may benefit some people with DCD.

“The social experiences of children with DCD may be much more variable than we currently appreciate, so a better understanding of this variability could translate to more accurate assessment and treatment by clinicians in the near future,” said Aziz-Zadeh.

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