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Fine and Gross Motor Activities for Children with Autism

written by: Dr. Anne Zachry • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/5/2012

Traits in children diagnosed with autism can vary, though a common characteristic is the delayed development of fine and gross motor skills. Children with autism often have difficulty with writing, clothing fasteners, and sports activities. Occupational therapy techniques can be helpful.

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    Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by problems with communication and social interactions. It is considered a serious and chronic disorder, and children with this diagnosis present with a variety of functional problems. Population studies have estimated that one out of every 110 children meet the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, with males being three to four times more likely than females to have the disorder.

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    Students with Autism and Motor Skills Deficiencies

    Motor skills in children with autism are often delayed, including the acquisition of fine motor skills and gross motor skills. Fine motor (holding a pencil, writing letters and numbers, cutting with scissors, tying shoes) and gross motor (walking, running, athletic coordination) developmental milestones are often more difficult for children with autism to attain in comparison to their neuro-typical peers. These delays can impact a child's ability to function on a day-to-day basis in the school setting and at home. The difficulties that young people with this disorder face in regard to motor skills development can lead to frustration, anxiety, low self-esteem, and apprehension toward learning a new skill or task.

    Children with autism may struggle in the academic environment as a result of difficulties with mastering fine and gross motor skills. In school, students who lack the dexterity to write legibly and swiftly with a pencil can easily fall behind in completing classroom and homework assignments. These students might have difficulty cutting with scissors, opening containers at lunch or tying their shoes.

    Social interactions can also be impacted when a child has difficulties mastering motor skills. Interactions that involve activities such as competitive sports may result in a child with autism being teased or mocked by peers, as a clumsy gait or awkward hand-eye coordination is detrimental to overall physical ability. Daily tasks that are simple for children with typical motor development, such as buttoning a shirt, snapping snaps, or zipping a coat, can be quite challenging for those who lag behind in motor functioning. Delays with these skills can cause stress in the home environment when getting ready for school in the mornings. The most effective way of minimizing the issues related to fine and gross motor skills with autism is for a child to participate in an occupational therapy program, which is offered as a free service for eligible public school students.

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    Occupational Therapy and Motor Skills Activities

    Occupational therapists are able to help children diagnosed with autism improve their fine and gross motor development through a variety of techniques and exercises. Parents can also work with their children on these techniques in the home environment. The earlier a child with autism begins to receive assistance in strengthening fine motor skills and gross motor skills, the more likely that school, social, and daily life experiences will be easier to navigate.

    Some methods that therapists use when promoting motor development in children diagnosed with autism are:

    --Teaching remedial exercises that are designed to encourage improvement with letter formation, appropriate spacing between words, and a functional pencil grasp.

    --Providing adaptations for writing as the child gets older, such as keyboarding options on a portable word processing device.

    --Working on basic fine motor skills by having the child lace on lacing cards, stack blocks, assemble nuts and bolts and string beads.

    --Address strength issues in the hands and fingers by having the child search for beads hidden in putty, squeezing and placing clothespins on the edge of a box or jar, squeezing on exercise balls and using the thumb and index finger to pop the bubbles on plastic bubble wrap.

    --Offering hands-on assistance when practicing tasks such as buttoning, holding utensils, and tying laces, and then fading that assistance as the child gains mastery of the skills.

    --Providing children with ample opportunity to work on physical coordination and balance through supervised use of playground equipment, such as climbing up steps and ladders, walking on balance beams and navigating jungle gyms.

    --Increasing arm and leg coordination with activities such as swimming and moving to music.

    --Developing hand-eye coordination by practicing athletic skills such as catching, throwing, or kicking balls.

    --Working on crab walks, hopping like a frog, and wheelbarrow walking with the child.

    --Having the child jump over a rope stretched out with several curves (like a snake). Instruct the child not to touch the rope or loose balance while jumping.

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    Stay Consistent

    Delays with motor skills in children with autism can lead to challenges related to fine and gross motor functioning; however, consistent therapeutic techniques can greatly enhance a child's physical potential. Motor skills development in individuals with autism can improve over time when proper interventions are taken.


  • Dankert, H. L., Davies, P. L., & Gavin, W. J. (2003). Occupational therapy effects on visual-motor skills in preschool children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 57, 542–549.
  • Case-Smith, J., & Arbesman, M. (2008). Evidence-based review of interventions for autism used in or of relevance to occupational therapy. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 416–429.
  • Marr, D., Cermak, S., Cohn, E. S., & Henderson, A. (2003). Fine motor activities in Head Start and kindergarten classrooms. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 57, 550–557.