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Changing autism's definition to include movement problems: youtube.com/watch?v=AgcTlQsj-x4

Understanding motor problems in children with ASD

Photo and video by Ashley Barnas

Bhat awarded NIH grant for research on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Anjana Bhat, associate professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Physical Therapy, has been awarded a research project (R01) grant through the National Institutes of Health for the next three years.

Bhat will look at a timely SPARK study dataset of 24,000 school-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The goal of Bhat’s grant-funded research is to better understand motor problems in children with ASD – their prevalence and relationship to other problems in ASD.

Bhat hopes to alter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of ASD, which includes social communication and repetitive behavior problems but not motor problems.

“Including motor impairments within the definition of ASD would bring it onto the radar of diagnosticians who could screen for motor delays or refer the child for further motor evaluation and treatment,” Bhat says.

Children participate in a movement study
Xavier Luckett and his little brother, Kayden, participate in a movement study with Anjana Bhat’s student research team. Wan-Chun Su (left), a fourth year Ph.D. student in biomechanics and movement science, and Kamryn Lombardi, a junior occupational therapy major, lead the brothers in exercises to gain a better understanding of autism’s effects on movement.

Therapies are largely directed at social communication but not motor problems, which are seen in 87% of children in the SPARK sample, which is the largest ASD cohort in the U.S. The earliest delays in children with ASD are in their motor skills, and those deficiencies increase as time goes on. Bhat says that gap is not being addressed.

“Only 32% of children with ASD receive PT [physical therapy], and 13% receive recreational therapies to address their gross-motor problems,” she says. “In contrast, 80% receive speech or OT [occupational therapy] therapies for speech or fine-motor problems. Movement clinicians -- like OTs, PTs and adaptive physical educators -- have a role to play in improving motor skills of children with ASD. Access to these services should be made available to children who need them.”

Bhat’s project will study the associations between motor impairment, autism severity and comorbidities in children with ASD. She has found that motor problems are related to other ASD-related issues and specifically aims to “determine the risk for motor impairment in children with ASD and how that changes with increasing social communication impairment, repetitive behavior severity, comorbidities and levels of impairment using parent report measures.”

Two of her recent papers argue why motor problems should be added to the definition of autism:

David Tulsky, director of the UD Center for Health Assessment Research and Translation (CHART), is the co-investigator, and Aaron Boulton, research assistant professor in CHART, is a collaborator on the grant.

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