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Looking at Autism, Motor Development, and Executive Function

In the study, “Emerging Executive Functioning and Motor Development in Infants at High and Low Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder,” executive function and motor skills were examined in infants at lower and higher risk for an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis (ASD). Infants with a sibling are considered at higher risk for ASD diagnosis due to the higher rate of heritability between siblings. Executive function was assessed in 186 high-risk and 76 low-risk infants using Piaget’s “A-not-B” task at 12 and 24 months. In the “A-not-B” task, the experimenter hides a toy under box “A,” which the child then lifts to retrieve the toy. The child then watches the experimenter move the toy under box “B,” to succeed in the task the child will look under box “A.” Children are expected to succeed at this task and understand the toy's movement at 12 months. Results showed that across groups at 12 months, lower fine motor skills were associated with better executive functioning. However, at 24 months higher fine and gross motor skills were linked with better executive functioning. In differences between groups, high-risk infants were found to show slower growth in working memory and response inhibition than low-risk infants, regardless of whether they were later diagnosed with ASD or not. These findings suggest that differences in executive functioning and motor skills may be present as young as 2 years of age in children at high risk of ASD diagnosis. These differences are important because they are observed around the same time many children start to show characteristics of ASD. 

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