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  • Author
    Sebiha Abdullahi
  • Co-author

    Tabitha Safari, Shulamite Green, PhD, Mirella Dapretto, PhD, Maggie Tsang, Rujuta B. Wilson, MD

  • Title

    Motor and Sensory Development of Infants at High Risk for Developing Autism

  • Abstract

    Introduction: Among individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), approximately 87% and 95% have motor and sensory impairments, respectively1,2.  Increased hypersensitivity to stimuli has been shown to correlate with the severity of restrictive and repetitive behaviors in those with ASD3. In addition, impaired sensory processing in children with ASD is thought to impede interactions with their surroundings leading to motor abnormalities4,5. Therefore, understanding the relationship between sensory and motor development in high-risk infants as well as identifying joint sensory-motor markers could be fundamental for creating tools for early diagnosis of ASD.


    Objectives: The purpose of this study is to understand the relationship between gross motor development and sensory processing in high-risk infants (HR) compared to low risk infants (LR).


    Methods: Participants include 41 HR infants, defined as those with at least one older sibling with an ASD diagnosis, and 15 LR infants, defined as those with an older sibling but no family history of ASD. Participants completed the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (AIMS), Infant Sensory Profile (SP2) and Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment (ITSEA). AIMS is an observational, norm-referenced, standardized assessment with 58 items assessing motor skills at prone, supine, sit and stand positions. SP2 is a caregiver questionnaire with 25 items assessing infants’ sensory processing. SP2’s domains include general, sensitivity and movement categories. ITSEA is standardized norm referenced caregiver form that measures the social emotional problems and competencies of children. We first summarized the results of these measures. We used ANOVA test and regression analysis to evaluate the relationship between the motor and sensory scores of HR and LR infants at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months.


    Results: Motor developmental and sensory differences between HR and LR infants begin to be discerned as early as at 3 months of age (p<0.05) on the AIMS and SP2 infant respectively. There were significant correlations between SP2 domains and AIMS scores for HR group at 3 month, general domain r=-0.44, p<0.05 and sensitivity domain r=-0.44, p<0.05. However, there was no significant correlations between AIMS and SP2 toddler or ITSEA at 9 and 12 months. 


    Conclusions: Our data suggests an inverse correlation between motor and sensory scores for high risk infants. This may support the hypothesis that infants with less sensory dysfunctions feel less hindered to explore their environment and consequently have improved development of  their motor skills compared to their counterparts who may have sensory impairments in movement, auditory, visual, touch or oral sensory processing. HR infants with sensory impairments appear to be at higher risk for delays in motor development, and future steps will evaluate this in greater detail and with a larger sample size. These data can provide valuable information on potential early interventions that could reduce sensory and motor impairments in ASD.




    1.         Bhat AN. Is Motor Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder Distinct From Developmental Coordination Disorder? A Report From the SPARK Study. Phys Ther. 2020;100(4):633-644.

    2.         Tomchek SD, Dunn W. Sensory processing in children with and without autism: a comparative study using the short sensory profile. Am J Occup Ther. 2007;61(2):190-200.

    3.         Schulz SE, Stevenson RA. Sensory hypersensitivity predicts repetitive behaviours in autistic and typically-developing children. Autism. 2019;23(4):1028-1041.

    4.         O'Neill M, Jones RS. Sensory-perceptual abnormalities in autism: a case for more research? J Autism Dev Disord. 1997;27(3):283-293.

    5.         Liu T. Sensory processing and motor skill performance in elementary school children with autism spectrum disorder. Percept Mot Skills. 2013;116(1):197-209.

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