What is low muscle tone?

Muscle tone is the amount of tension in a muscle. Muscles always have a slight amount of tension (slightly turned on) so that they are always ready to contract when we need to move. Muscle tone is also what helps us hold our bodies upright against gravity when we are sitting and standing and helps us control our movement.

Muscle tone can be thought of as a spectrum; some people have lower muscle tone and some people have higher muscle tone. Low muscle tone, or hypotonia, is when the resting tension of the muscles is reduced. The muscles are often described as ‘floppy’. In most cases, low muscle tone is ‘idiopathic’ meaning the cause is unknown. For a small number of children, low muscle tone is a feature of a neurological or genetic condition. Low muscle tone is also very common in the autistic population.

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts how an individual thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment. Every autistic individual will have a different combination of strengths and challenges.

How common are movement difficulties in autistic children?

It is an outdated thought that ASD does not affect a child’s gross motor skills. Learning new movements relies on being able to process sensory information, understand and respond to verbal and non-verbal communication, and effectively plan, problem-solve and adapt to changes. These are all skills that autistic children typically have difficulty with.

Research has found that 87% of autistic children aged 5-15 years present with movement difficulties (Bhat 2020).

Research is now also suggesting that gross motor delays during early childhood may actually be an early marker for ASD, before more diagnostically specific signs develop, like communication difficulties (Harris 2017).

Gross motor skills play a significant role in social participation for school-aged children as many formal activities (eg. PE class, sports day), informal activities (eg. play at recess and lunch), and out-of-school recreation (eg. social gatherings) often have active components at this age.

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