Motor Experiences and Social Skills

A New Way to Think About Developement

Reference: Advance for Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists, (Sept.19, 2011)

Early motor experiences can shape infants’ preferences for objects and faces, according to a new study.  The findings demonstrate that providing infants with “sticky mittens” to manipulate toys increases their interest in faces, suggesting advanced social development.

The study, conducted by Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Baltimore, MD, and Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, TN, supports a growing body of evidence that early motor development and self-produced motor experiences contribute to infants’ understanding of the social world around them.  Conversely, this implies that delayed or impaired motor skills, such as in autism, could negatively impact social interactions and development. 

The results provide “a new way to think about typical and atypical development,” said lead author Klaus Libertus, Phd, of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger.  “The mind is not independent from the body, especially during development.  As motor skills advance, other domains follow suit, indicating strong connections between seemingly unrelated domains.  Such connections have exciting implications, suggesting interventions could target the motor domain to foster social development.”

Previous research found that infants with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show less interest in faces and social orienting.  While the new study was conducted with typically developing infants, it indicates that infants at risk for ASD or showing signs of abnormal social development may benefit from motor training as early as 3 months of age.

“This means that early motor development is very important and parents should encourage motor experiences and active exploration by their child,” said Dr. Libertus.  “Fostering motor development doesn’t have to be complex.  Any interactions or games that encourage a child to develop independent motor skills are important.”

Researchers divided 36 typically developing 3-month-olds into two groups.  One had active motor experiences, and the other had passive experiences.  Infants in the active group were given mittens affixed with strips of Velcro known as “sticky mittens”.  A brief swipe of their arm made toys covered in Velcro stick, as if they had successfully grasped the object.  Parents demonstrated this by attaching a toy to the mitten.  The toy was removed, and the infant was encouraged to reach independently for the toy again.

Infants in the passive group were fitted with aesthetically similar mittens and toys that did not have Velcro.  They were only passive observers, as parents provided stimulation by moving a toy and touching it to the inside of the infant’s palms.

After two weeks of daily training, the researchers tracked the infants’ eye movements while they watched images of faces and toys flash on a computer screen.   Infants in the passive and active groups were compared with each other and to two control groups of untrained infants comprised of non-reaching 3-month-olds and independently reaching 5-month-olds.

The active group showed more interest in faces than objects, while the passive group showed no preference.  Infants in the active group focused on faces first, suggesting strengthening of a spontaneous preference.  Their social preferences were similar to those of the 5-month-olds, indicating advanced development following training.

Individual differences in the motor activity of all the 3-month-old infants were predictive of their spontaneous orienting to faces.   Regardless of experience, the more reaching attempts infants made, the stronger their tendency to look at faces.  Thus, motor experiences seem to drive social development.

“The most surprising result is a connection between early motor experiences and the emergence of orienting toward faces,”  said Dr. Libertus.  “Logically, one would predict the opposite.  But in the light of seeing actions as serving a social purpose, it makes sense.”

A key question researchers hope to answer next is whether these early changes will translate into future gains for these children.

“Our results indicate a new direction for research on social development in infants,” said Dr. Libertus.  He and his colleagues will continue to observe the children to see if the social development benefits achieved during the current study are sustained a year later.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health provided support for the study.

Libertus, K., Needham, A. (2011). Reaching experience increases face preference in 3-month-old infants. Developmental Science, online, Sept. 9.

Motorcycle Helmets Hard on Hearing

Reference: The ASHA Leader (Oct. 11, 2011)

The distinctive roar of a motorcycle engine is loud, but studies have revealed the biggest source of noise for motorcyclists is generated by air whooshing over their helmets.  Even at legal speeds, the sound can exceed safe levels.  Researchers in the United Kingdom placed motorcycle helmets on mannequin heads, mounted them in a wind tunnel, and turned on fans.  By placing microphones at different locations around the helmet and at  the mannequin’s ear, researchers found that an area underneath the helmet and near the chin bar is a significant source of the noise that reaches rider’s sensitive eardrums.  Future tests will move beyond the wind tunnel to riders on the open road.  The findings, described in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, may lead to quieter helmet design.  Search “hard on hearing” at

Severe Language Delay

Folic Acid Associated with Reduced Risk    

Reference: Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists Audiologists (Nov. 4, 2011)

The use of folic acid supplements by women during the periconceptional period has been found to be associated with a reduced risk of children having severe language delay at age 3, according to a Norwegian study.

Randomized controlled trials and other studies have demonstrated that folic acid supplements taken during the period from four weeks before conception to eight weeks afterward reduce the risk of neural tube defects.  “To our knowledge none of the trials have followed up their sample to investigate whether these supplements have effects on neurodevelopment that are only manifest after birth,” the researchers reported.

The new study was conducted by Christine  Roth, ClinPsyD, MSc, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, in Oslo, and colleagues.  They  investigated whether maternal use of folic acid supplements was associated with a reduced risk of severe language delay among offspring at age 3.

“Unlike the United States, Norway does not forify foods with folic acid, increasing the contrast in relative folate status between women who do and do not take folic acid supplements,” the researchers noted.

Pregnant women in Norway were recruited for the study beginning in 1999.  Data were included on children born before 2008 whose mothers returned the three-year follow-up questionnaire by June 16, 2010.  Maternal use of folic acid supplements within the interval between four weeks before and eight weeks after conception was the exposure.

The primary outcome measured for the study was children’s language competency at age 3 as gauged by maternal report on a six-point ordinal language grammar scale.  Children with minimal expressive language (only one-word or unintelligible utterances) were rated as having severe language delay.

The main analysis for the study involved 38,954 children: 19,956 boys and 18,998 girls.  A total of 204 (0.5 percent) of the children (159 boys and 45 girls) were rated as having severe language delay.  Children whose mothers took no dietary supplements in the specified exposure interval comprised the control group.  there were 9,052 children in this group, including 81 (0.9 percent) with severe language delay.

The researchers reported the data for three patterns of exposure to maternal dietary supplements: 1) other supplements, but no folic acid 2) folic acid only; and 3) folic acid in combination with other supplements.

The first group numbered 2,480 children, including 22 (0.9 percent), with severe language delay.  The second group, of folic acid only, had 7,127 children, 28 (0.4 percent) of whom had severe language delay.  The last group was comprised of 19,005 children, including 73 (0.4 percent) with severe language delay.

Maternal use of supplements containing folic acid within the periconceptional period was associated with a substantially reduced risk of severe language delay in children at age 3, the researchers discovered.

“We found no association, however, between maternal use of folic acid supplements and significant delay in gross motor skills at age 3,” they reported.  “The specificity provides some reassurance that there is no confounding by an unmeasured factor.  Such a factor might be expected to relate to both language and motor delay.”

No previous prospective observational study examined the relation of prenatal folic acid supplements to severe language delay in children.

“If this relationship were shown to be causal in future research, it would have important implications for understanding the biological processes underlying disrupted neurodevelopment, for the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders, and for policies of folic acid supplementation for women of reproductive age,” the investigators said.

Reference: Roth, C., Magnus, P., Schjolberg, S. et al. (2011). Folic acid supplements in pregnancy and severe language delay in children. JAMA, 306 (14): 1566-73