The ability to throw or catch a ball may be a predictor of social skills success in children with autism, researchers say.

In a new study looking at 35 children ages 6 to 15 with high-functioning autism, researchers found that kids who had greater difficulty with so-called object-control motor skills — activities like throwing a ball — also displayed more trouble with social and communication skills.

“So much of the focus on autism has been on developing social skills, and that is very crucial,” said Megan MacDonald of Oregon State University and the lead author of the study published in the July issue of the journal Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly. “Yet we also know there is a link between motor skills and autism, and how deficits in these physical skills play into this larger picture is not clearly understood.”

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Researchers say the finding raises questions about whether children with autism are holding back on the playground, for example, because of social skills deficits or due to physical weaknesses.

The good news, MacDonald said, is that motor skills can be taught.

“We have programs and interventions that we know work, and have measurable impact on motor skill development,” she said. “We need to make sure we identify the issue and get a child help as early as possible.”