In addition to social and communication struggles, a new study finds that children with autism are often up to a year behind their typically developing peers in acquiring motor skills.

Kids on the spectrum are about six months behind other children in developing gross motor skills like running and jumping and nearly a year behind on fine motor skills such as holding a spoon or a small toy, according to findings published this week in the journal Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly.

“It’s not that big a deal if we’re talking about older kids, but for kids between 1 and 3 years old, those are substantial deficits, almost one-third of their life,” said researcher Megan MacDonald of Oregon State University. “At that age, they’re like little sponges — we can teach them motor skills.”

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For the study, MacDonald and her colleagues assessed the development and motor skills of 159 children, including 110 diagnosed with autism, at ages 14 to 33 months. They found that motor skills difficulties directly correlated with the severity of the child’s social and communication deficits but were not predictive of intellectual ability.

MacDonald said the findings point to the need to incorporate a focus on the development of motor skills into treatment plans for young children with autism.

“Recognizing those deficits really early gives us more time to help children catch up to their peers in regards to motor skill,” MacDonald said.

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