Motor Behavior and the Autism Spectrum Disorders-Introduction. (Cover Story)

By Reid, Greg; Collier, Douglas | Palaestra, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Motor Behavior and the Autism Spectrum Disorders-Introduction. (Cover Story)


Reid, Greg, Collier, Douglas, Palaestra


In the 1940s the term autism was used in separated and independent accounts of 11 children by Kanner (1943) and 4 children by Asperger (1944/1991). Both Kanner and Asperger described the children as being socially isolated, with poor eye contact and limited expressive gestures. There was a lack of imaginary play, an obsessive desire for sameness, as well as a repetitive pattern of activities. Behaviors could be destructive and aggressive, and the children demonstrated odd and/or extreme reactions to sensory stimuli (Wing, 1991). Problems in language were common. Some of Kanner's children did not speak, while others were monotonic, echolalic, and/or reversed pronouns. The four children described by Asperger all developed language (in fact their vocabularies were quite impressive) yet were described as being long-winded, monotonic, or pedantic (Wing, 1991). Because the paper by Asperger was written in German, it was largely ignored until Wing (1981) shared Asperger's observations, along with case studies from her own clinic with the English speaking world. Rutter (1978) has argued that Kanner's use of the term autism was an unfortunate choice, as this term suggested a rich fantasy life, while the children described by him lacked imagination. As well, the children described by Kanner did not withdraw, but failed to develop relationships. Nevertheless, the term autism has survived.

Today autism is considered to be a developmental disorder of unknown etiology with heterogeneous behavioral symptoms. Major symptoms are qualitative deficits in social interaction, communication, as well as behaviors and interests that are unusually restrictive and repetitive (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). In the United States, there were only 5,500 children identified with autism receiving special educational services in 1991-92, but 55,000 in 1998-99 (Council for Exceptional Children, 2001) (see Figure 1). Adapted physical education specialists, general physical education teachers, recreational specialists, and coaches have probably encountered more individuals diagnosed with autism and related disorders in recent years. However, is autism more common today than 20 years ago, or is it simply an issue of recognition by education authorities? Practitioners have many questions about autism. What intervention techniques have proven most effective? How do we deal with disruptive and challenging behaviors? What is known about motor behavior and autism? What is the relationship between autism and Asperger's Syndrome (AS)?

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The purpose of this four-part series is to respond to these and other questions, so that practicing professionals-and volunteers can design effective--and positive-physical activity programs which are consistent with our current knowledge of autism. This first article describes the autism spectrum disorders with particular reference to motor behavior. It includes diagnosis, classification, etiology, theories, and epidemiology. The second article deals with program content and intervention as they relate to assessment and organization principles. The intervention theme is continued in the third article highlighting teaching techniques. The fourth article outlines strategies for coping with difficult behavior.

Diagnosis and Classification

In North America, autism is one of five Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association (2000). The others are Rett's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. The DSM- IV-TR manual (p. 69) characterizes all PDD by severe and pervasive impairment in (a) reciprocal social interaction, (b) communication, and (c) stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities. Impairments are defined in qualitative terms and must be "distinctly deviant relative to the individual's developmental level or mental age" (p.

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