Motor Skills as Moderators of Core Symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Preliminary Data From an Exploratory Analysis With Artificial Neural Networks

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Abstract

Motor disturbances have been widely observed in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and motor problems are currently reported as associated features supporting the diagnosis of ASD in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Studies on this issue reported disturbances in different motor domains, including both gross and fine motor areas as well as coordination, postural control, and standing balance. However, they failed to clearly state whether motor impairments are related to demographical and developmental features of ASD. Both the different methodological approaches assessing motor skills and the heterogeneity in clinical features of participants analyzed have been implicated as contributors to variance in findings. However, the non-linearity of the relationships between variables may account for the inability of the traditional analysis to grasp the core problem suggesting that the "single symptom approach analysis" should be overcome. Artificial neural networks (ANNs) are computational adaptive systems inspired by the functioning processes of the human brain particularly adapted to solving non-linear problems. This study aimed to apply the ANNs to reveal the entire spectrum of the relationship between motor skills and clinical variables. Thirty-two male children with ASD [mean age: 48.5 months (SD: 8.8); age range: 30-60 months] were recruited in a tertiary care university hospital. A multidisciplinary comprehensive diagnostic evaluation was associated with a standardized assessment battery for motor skills, the Peabody Developmental Motor Scale-Second Edition. Exploratory analyses were performed through the ANNs. The findings revealed that poor motor skills were a common clinical feature of preschoolers with ASD, relating both to the high level of repetitive behaviors and to the low level of expressive language. Moreover, unobvious trends among motor, cognitive and social skills have been detected. In conclusion, motor abnormalities in preschoolers with ASD were widespread, and the degree of impairment may inform clinicians about the severity of ASD core symptoms. Understanding motor disturbances in children with ASD may be relevant to clarify neurobiological basis and ultimately to guide the development of tailored treatments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2683
JournalFront. Psychol.
Volume9
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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