Describing motor coordination difficulties in autistic adults
Dr Emma Gowen summarises the findings from a study on motor coordination in autistic adults conducted over the Summer of 2021. The researchers involved in the study were Emma Gowen and Ellen Poliakoff and two Masters students – Adeeba Waheed and Louis Early.
In this study, we aimed to describe the experiences that autistic adults have of motor coordination (the ability to coordinate your body and limbs). Some examples of what we mean by coordination are jumping, walking in a straight line, balancing, lifting, catching, picking things up and finger movements. It is known from previous research that many autistic individuals have difficulties with motor coordination, but there is little research that has asked autistic adults to describe the kinds of motor coordination difficulties or strengths that they experience as well as how motor coordination difficulties impact daily life.
What did we do?
17 autistic adults (5 females, 19-67 yrs) took part in 5 focus groups conducted either through Zoom video or text chat, each lasting 2 hours. Participants were asked a series of semi-structured questions about the type of motor coordination difficulties they experienced, what things affects their motor coordination and how any motor difficulties affect daily life. Focus groups were recorded, transcribed and analysed to obtain themes.
What did we find?
We identified four main themes. In the first theme, “coordination difficulties are pervasive and variable”, participants indicated that coordination difficulties affected a wide range of movements including larger movements such as walking, running and balance as well as fine manual control used in activities such as sewing, doing up buttons and tying shoelaces. These coordination difficulties impacted upon activities such as driving, getting dressed, DIY, carrying items and tying things (e.g. shoe laces or bin bags). Although there were mixed views on whether coordination issues had improved, none said that they no longer had issues, highlighting that coordination difficulties are likely to be present throughout life. Many participants expressed a spiky profile, where they could be poor at some motor tasks, but very good at others. While some participants were very aware of their coordination difficulties, others had not been aware until other people had pointed them out.
In the second theme, “motor coordination is an active process”, participants described how coordination requires continual concentration and that factors that affect concentration such as sensory overload, difficulties with proprioception and stress could make coordination worse. Participants also discussed that they often needed to plan movements ahead of time and that they found dynamic situations where they needed to make reactive movements difficult. As a consequence of the required concentration, participants found coordination effortful and fatiguing.
In the third theme “Motor coordination difficulties impact social and emotional wellbeing”, participants expressed how others could often have negative reactions to their clumsiness and in some cases, participants were bullied and excluded. However, there were some examples where other people were supportive and understanding. Participants described how coordination issues could lead to feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, frustration and fear.
In the final theme, “multiple learning and coping strategies are employed”, many participants indicated that with practice they could learn new motor skills and improve on existing ones. However, they indicated that this might take a long time and despite practice they would often not achieve the ability of their peers. Participants described numerous practical strategies to help them feel in more control of their coordination ability as well as avoiding certain activities that were challenging. None of the participants had received specific support for coordination issues
This study has highlighted that motor coordination issues in autistic individuals affects multiple aspects of daily life and social and emotional wellbeing. It has also provided a number of testable ideas for why coordination difficulties occur in autistic people. These findings can be used to raise the importance of motor coordination in autism during diagnosis and support pathways.
Adeeba and Louis have successfully completed their Masters thesis. Emma will be writing the study into an academic paper and using the findings to support grant applications on coordination in autism. She is also talking to clinicians involved in autism diagnosis and support about the study. To keep updated, please look out for further posts via Autism@Manchester. Also, if you are interested in getting involved/providing advice on future motor coordination projects, please let me know (email@example.com).
Finally, a big THANK YOU to all the participants who took part. I really enjoyed every focus group – the discussions were incredibly insightful and have given me motivation to keep trying to get funding for this important topic.