The Creative Portfolio of Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

Skills & the Mind: Do Motor Skills Equate Intelligence?


As we grow from children into adults, there are certain milestones in our lives that signify healthy development. Maybe you remember learning to swim,ride a bike or write your name. Maybe you remember learning to play sports. Maybe you just like being able to walk and eat  at the same time without falling on your face. These are all thanks to motor skills but today we’re going to explore what’s it like when motor skills don’t develop as planned and what that means for how your intelligence is judged in society.

  • What Are Motor Skills?
  • How Autism Affects Motor Skills
  • Are Motor Skills Linked to Intelligence?
  • The True Value of Motor Skills
  • Community Corner
  • Conclusion

A motor skill is defined in its most basic terms as a learned movement or action involving the muscles of the human body. Motor skills are controlled by our central nervous system and can be broken down into gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are those that require the usage of large muscle groups. This can include things like walking or simply balancing but when further broken down gross motor skills break into locomotor skills which are things like running,jumping or swimming and object-control skills like catching or kicking.

Fine motor skills are those that use smaller muscle groups. They are more precise in nature and include things like writing or even the simple task of blinking. Many of the more refined tasks we need to perform rely more on fine motor skills then they do gross ones. It is also more likely that fine motor skills can be lost when not used over periods of time or impaired by means of injury,disability or neurological issues.Decreased control of fine motor skills is therefore a reasonable impact on our quality of life when it does happen. Not all movements are classified as motor skills but notably most motor skills can be practiced or honed. The more developed a motor skill is, the more it can lend to the success of other skills we perform in our daily lives.

The most pivotal development time for motor skills is when we’re children but this process further differs by gender and of course whatever factors the individual themselves brings to the table. This means that even with the stages of motor skill development being identifiable that the process is essentially unique to each person and cannot be used as a true universal measuring stick. This is an important factor to consider when we talk about what motor skills can be used to determine about a person.

Rather than take a cold scientific look at this question, let’s actually flip it. It’s not uncommon research that autism is a neurological disorder and has been shown to affect the development of motor skills. Let’s instead look at the more important aspect and that is how motor skills affect autism. As a person on the autism spectrum I can assure you that even if you aren’t doing it consciously, you are probably  treating me as less intelligent or less capable than you when you learn I have autism. Our society has an ingrained and conditioned response to the word autism and that response is that a person with autism is less intelligent and capable. A large part of this assumption stems from the fact that many on the spectrum have impaired motor skills.

The important factor to understand is that no neurological disorder by virtue of existing makes a person stupid or incapable of learning. The human mind is more than statistics on a sheet and the human spirit can overcome any perceived glass ceiling with the right tools. Despite this, many on the autism spectrum are judged based on their impaired motor skills as opposed to their human potential. The impairment like many things concerning the autism spectrum will vary person to person. Being non-verbal for instance is something I and many on the spectrum experience but that experience will vary. I personally only experience non-verbal traits under heavy anxiety or stress but some others are almost completely non-verbal or just barely experience it. I myself can’t ride a bike or swim but I know some people with autism certainly can do these things. The fact of the matter is that under the label of autism, we’re human beings and we’re all unique. In that same strain, the way autism manifests in each person is different and the way each neurodiverse mind is wired is also different. The idea that we can lump people into piles or use arbitrary measuring sticks like motor skills to determine their worth is a relic  of dated research in my opinion.

Despite it being something most people do instinctively, moving our bodies actually takes skill. But does that mean it’s a sign of intelligence. Let me answer that question by telling you a little bit about myself. I can’t ride a bike,swim or catch a ball well. I have never been skilled in sports and I’m clumsy to the point I could be considered a danger to my own safety at times. I cannot write cursive and I can barely write print to a degree even I can read it. I also exhibit almost every trait scientifically identified in a potential genius and have an extensive grasp of multiple topics. I can learn nearly any job and master it if given the tools and time. I choose not to read most mainstream publications ,not because my intelligence is low, but because most of them are written far below my second to third year college reading level.

If you haven’t figured it out from that then let me give you the really simple answer. No, motor skills have no determining weight on intelligence. Riding a bike and writing calligraphy wouldn’t increase or decrease my potential as a person. Catching a ball wouldn’t influence my ability to learn new things or polish weak areas. Motor skills are things we learn and learning is a skill driven by desire, not whether I can swim or talk. Motor skills can impact learning but no motor skill stops a person from learning and any person with the desire to can pursue learning a skill. There are in fact multiple therapies and rehabilitation methods built around honing or relearning motor skills. Don’t think less of me or anyone else with autism because they can’t talk,catch a ball or write perfectly. You see it as a limitation. I see it as a small aspect of myself that doesn’t define who I am. It just means I take a different approach to life and that approach is no less valid or respectable than yours.

So if motor skills aren’t a sign of intelligence, what can they actually determine? Well like my blog on labels you will be sorely disappointed to know they are limited in determining factors of much more than their face value. Motor skills determine what you can do physically or verbally. That’s about it. Learning is not a special skill and neither is practicing, so being able to ride a mountain bike or carry a conversation isn’t going to guarantee you a seat at Harvard or even be a crucial factor in your mental capacity at a basic level. Human potential isn’t measured in motor skills and I think the sooner we pick that up as a society, the sooner the stigma can lift from those with developmental issues attempting to impede their growth as a person.

I say attempting because really that’s all any impairment can do. Human potential is limitless and dependent on the person. Think of it this way. If I have great motor skills and then get into a car accident I might get the same impairments as my autism is capable of causing. Yet our approach to these scenarios are drastically different. The person in the accident would be remembered as capable despite their new situation  and probably encouraged to get services and rehabilitation but people with autism are discounted for the same circumstance on a daily basis.  There is little to no fundamental difference in these scenarios because the effect is the same despite causes varying.

The most important thing to grasp about motor skills or really any skill is that we all have valuable skills that can allow us to contribute to society. I may not be able to speak consistently, write cursive or play a sport as well as you. I may not be able to learn something society considers “simple” like swimming,riding a bike or walking without tripping as efficiently. But the fact of the matter is that I can write proficiently through typing,speak well on subjects that interest me and most importantly learn new skills with a passion that would leave a neurotypical eating my dust,which I do every single day despite any perceived impairments from my autism. My potential is more than what you notice I can’t do and that’s how it should be regardless of whether I have a disability or not.

I recently joined an autism support group on Facebook and it’s been an eye-opening thing for me to be able to discuss topics with other people on the spectrum. That’s why I wanted to try adding a new feature to my new blogs and that is the community corner. Just as important as getting my own story out there and making my voice heard is helping people to realize that there are millions of unique voices in the autistic community. By default and for privacy reasons I’ve left the  names anonymous with the exception of those who wanted their names mentioned but understand that these are real words from real adults in the autism community.

For this article I asked:

  1. What motor skill impairments do you struggle with as a person on the autism spectrum and how do they impact your life?
  2. Do you feel that neurotypical people or society in general classifies you as less intelligent or capable based on your range of motor skills?
  • “As a kid I thought I had terrible motor skills, but that turned out to be in large part the opportunities I was given and denied, the things I wasn’t allowed to choose or opt out of. Schools and nt thinking classify people so narrowly, and I wasn’t the right “kind” of person to be physical. Once I got away from my family I discovered that “thinking with my body” is one of my stronger areas of “intelligence”.”
  • “Motor skills ? All of them. Holding objects like cups. Getting dressed. Tying shoes. Etc. Scissors. I can lose any motor skill at any time. Yes the world is made for the physical person who had good motor skills. Jobs require physicality in most ways. So yes they would say less capable.”
  • “…I now view my hyperacusis much more like a disability than I used to. It is frustrating though that they assume speaking and competence are somehow correlated (even when they sometimes see you speak fluently before!). It’s such a weird assumption imo.”
  • “The only thing that comes to mind is when you’re in a shutdown and you physically can’t speak, but you can think just fine. Otherwise people just see me as slightly awkward and “clumsy,” but not really less intelligent. If I can’t speak though people get confused and can assume that I can’t think if I can’t respond to them immediately or can’t speak at all. People who don’t know I’m autistic may get really distressed and will try to keep talking to elicit an answer – I can’t tell them that I literally can’t speak. “
  • “I’m working on a kind of ‘aid’ to get the message across that I’m not always able to respond verbally. I don’t go completely non verbal but am often not able to say the things I need to say because of a shut down. I made a card with some basic info explaining, that I just can hand to the other person (usually a doctor because that’s the kind of situation when this happens for me). My counselor warned me that it could mean that they would treat me as not intelligent, if I would hand this card. I only tried it once and the doctor indeed started to talk to me slowly and very loud  but it did give me more time to process and gave me more confidence to take the time I needed instead of letting me feeling rushed by the doctor. I’m going to alter the info on the card to add that I am intelligent and understand everything.”

One of the largest and most observable differences between a person on and off the spectrum is the development of motor skills but there needs to be a  shift in what that’s used to determine. Writing messy,being clumsy and not being able to catch a ball shouldn’t define a person and certainly shouldn’t be used as grounding to treat them as a less intelligent or capable person. Better understanding between not just everyday neurotypicals and those on the spectrum, but also the focus of the medical community, can change for the better once we realize as a society that human potential can’t be defined by something arbitrary and has no glass ceiling or prerequisite.

Thanks for reading this issue of Thoughts of an Aspie!

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