by Klaus Libertus, PhD
Research Associate at the Learning Research and Development Center
University of Pittsburgh
In a study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology we were able to encourage grasping behaviors in three-month-old infants with a family history of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). This was done by using “sticky mittens” – infant mittens with Velcro attached, to be used with toys that also have Velcro attached. While wearing these mittens, a baby can swipe at a toy and the toy will stick to the mitten – giving the child the experience of actually picking up the toy. You may wonder why one should study the effects of a motor intervention in infants at risk for ASDs – since ASDs are typically defined by the presence of social rather than motor delays. The answer is quite simple, early motor skills are necessary for social interactions. Let me explain.
Successful grasping of objects typically emerges around 5 to 6 months of age. However, rather than the act of grasping itself, what matters more is what happens next. Once a toy has been picked up, the child can explore the object, show it, and share it with others. Parents respond to these behaviors by labeling the object or by encouraging the child’s actions (e.g., by saying “good job, you got the ball”). In short, grasping an object places the child in the midst of dynamic social interactions that are rich in opportunities for learning about social cues and language.
Agreeing with this interpretation, previous work from our lab has shown that encouraging infants’ grasping skills also leads to an increase in their attention towards faces – at least in infants without a family history of ASD. This finding suggests that obtaining a new motor skill may indeed affect development of social skills. In the context of ASDs this is of particular interest, as a growing number of studies have identified motor issues such as poor postural control in infants with a family history of ASD. For example, we recently reported in the journal Child Development that at-risk infants show reduced grasping activity at six months of age. Together, these findings suggest that infants at high risk for ASD may benefit from early interventions targeting the motor domain – especially their grasping skills.
Our new study addressed exactly this question and brings both good news and not so good news. Overall, our at-risk three-month-olds increased their grasping significantly following motor training – suggesting that at-risk infants will respond to motor interventions. Unfortunately, the same children did not show a meaningful increase in attention towards faces following training – unlike our findings in infants without a family history of ASD. There are different possible explanations for these diverging findings: On the one hand, it is possible that our at-risk infants simply needed more time to learn about the social interactions that follow grasping. On the other hand, it is also possible that there were some infants in our sample who performed worse than the others and reduced our ability to detect changes in the entire group. To examine this possibility further, we currently follow the group of trained at-risk infants to see if their response to our motor training may eventually predict a future ASD diagnosis.
Despite our negative results regarding the social attention task, our findings are encouraging and show that motor interventions can be effective in at-risk children. A key aspect of our intervention was that the parents themselves provided the training. Since parents know their child best, they can uniquely tailor interventions to their child’s specific needs and constraints – significantly improving the effectiveness of the training. Another intervention study that was published this week follows the same approach, and future research should place more emphasis on including the parent when designing and implementing interventions.