Motor Patterns Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder and How to Spot Them

About The Author

"Hi! I’m Emily, a pediatric physical therapist in NYC. I work with children in a hospital-based outpatient clinic, as well as in the home. I have a passion for truly understanding every child I come across. I use my skills as a doctor of physical therapy and certified autism specialist, to appropriately nurture, as well as challenge, your child in their journey towards independence."
Emily Schlicht, PT, DPT
Certified Autism Specialist

Parents repeatedly expressed to me that there was no one in their area providing the expertise they were looking for. So, I launched my own company – EMpower PT. EMpower PT offers in-home services to children and families struggling to overcome a developmental diagnosis. As a Certified Autism Specialist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and Certified Dynamic Movement Intervention Therapist, I have the skills to help you and your little one. I incorporate the whole family into treatment plans, resulting in improved quality of life and participation in age-appropriate tasks. I am currently accepting patients and referrals in the NYC area. Follow along on Instagram or visit my website to learn more!

Now that you know who I am, I want to share with you valuable information on how to recognize early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Most of us have heard of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but do you actually know what goes on for a little one with Autism? Autistic children have deficits in social-emotional skills, non-verbal communication, and personal relationships (DSM 5th Ed, 2013). These deficits may present as struggling to read facial expressions, difficulty making eye contact, or bluntly commenting on someone’s appearance. Additionally, Autistic children have repetitive movement patterns or behaviors (DSM 5th Ed, 2013).

Repetitive or restricted behaviors can be present in speech, interests, movements, routines etc. At the upper extremities, children may wave, hand flap, or fidget repeatedly. These behaviors provide sensory information during stressful or emotional times. Similarly, you may see a child pacing, spinning, jumping, or stomping, these behaviors provide vestibular stimulation.

Other signs you may notice:

If you have noticed any of these behaviors in your little one, keep reading! I will now discuss a few motor specific signs to look out for. The more information you have to present to your child’s medical team, the easier it will be to get your child the therapy services or school accommodations they need to succeed.

Autistic children commonly display low postural tone. Low tone presents as slumping over at the dinner table, using their arm to prop their head up, a big arch in their back with a protruding tummy, or just plain “floppy”. Autistic children also may display poor motor control and motor planning; this may present as bumping into tables or people, poor bilateral hand use, or uncoordinated and clumsy behavior. If you are concerned about your child, discuss what you see with your child’s pediatrician and ask for a physical or occupational therapy assessment.

Finally, we will discuss motor milestones. Autistic children are commonly late to achieve motor milestones, meaning they achieve motor milestones after the expected time period. This is an important time to include a physical therapist! Say your child is 10 months old and they just learned to roll, they still aren’t sitting up, or crawling – this is a pattern. I recommend speaking with your pediatrician and requesting a physical or occupational therapy evaluation.

Research suggests that children cannot be reliably diagnosed with autism until 2 years or older (Lord, Risi, DiLavore, et al., 2006), but that doesn’t mean you cannot give them resources to improve their skills and behaviors before then. You don’t need to wait and see! Pediatric physical therapists are childhood movement experts who have the training to deeply understand your child’s diagnosis and its complications.


“I’m a busy parent, how do I keep track of all this?”

Nowadays, we are never too far away from our phones; I recommend taking a 10–30-minute video while your child is playing every month. Pediatricians and physical or occupational therapists can use this information to gauge your child’s progress and determine what interventions your child would benefit from.

Pediatricians will typically provide a form at each well visit that asks what skills your child has or has not accomplished. This helps initiate conversation within your healthcare team if something needs attention.

I provide skills checklists on my website that are customized for each age! Simply print them out, hang them on the fridge, and once a month check in to see what skills your little one has accomplished so far.

Closing Remarks & Disclaimers:

I used identity first language throughout this article purposefully. The community of parents and children who I have spoken with agree that Autism is an inherent part of one’s identity and therefore, identity first language is appropriate. However, I recognize and respect that each individual and family has their own preference.

All information in this article is based on the most recent definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder that is described in the DSM 5 (DSM 5th Ed, 2013). It is important to note that if your child displays one, or even a few of these traits, you don’t need to panic. Write down your concerns and bring them to your pediatrician or other trusted healthcare provider.

The information in this article is based on professional opinion and evidenced based research. This should not replace a doctor’s opinion. Please consult your pediatrician or other healthcare provider.

If you still have questions or want to learn more about sensory and motor development, check out my website or DM me on Instagram!

Emily Schlicht, PT, DPT
Certified Autism Specialist

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Dynamic Movement Intervention Therapist

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