Just Published: Moving the Field: The Sensorimotor Perspective on Autism

From Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 7.6 (2013). On-line.

(Commentary on “Rethinking autism: implications of sensory and motor differences,” an article by Anne Donnellan, David Hill, and Martha Leary)

Ralph J. Savarese

Humanities Writ Large Fellow, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

This triad of clinicians and researchers has been advancing a sensorimotor perspective on autism for years; at last, the scientific community is beginning to catch up. Since the article’s initial publication in Disability Studies Quarterly, the sensorimotor hypothesis has garnered even more support (Donnellan et al., 2010). For example, a meta-analysis from 2010 concluded, “ASD is associated with significant and widespread alterations in motor performance” (Fournier et al., 2010). The article went so far as to propose that motor differences constitute a “core element” of autism and that “interventions aimed at improving … motor coordination (i.e., gait and balance, arm functions, and movement planning)” should be considered. A study from 2011 found that gross and fine motor differences in autistic children increased significantly with “each 6-month period of chronological age” (Lloyd et al., 2011). It recommended “addressing motor development in early intervention treatments.” And a study from 2012 reported that “motor skills were substantially impaired among ASD-affected children and highly correlated with autistic severity and IQ” (Hilton et al., 2012). By looking at the siblings of autistic children and finding in them no equivalent impairment, the study was able to directly link sensorimotor disturbances with ASD. It, too, contended that motor impairment is a “core characteristic” of autism and that treatment should reflect this fact. The tide has clearly shifted with respect to the sensorimotor hypothesis; what was once dismissed out of hand by an earlier generation of autism researchers is now increasingly being taken up for its superior explanatory power.

Read more of Moving the Field: The Sensorimotor Perspective on Autism as it appears in frontiers