It included 35 children, aged 6 to 15, with autism who were considered high-functioning and attended typical school classes. The children underwent tests for two types of motor skills: object-control motor skills that involve precise action such as catching or throwing; and locomotion skills such as running and walking.
The children who struggled with object-control motor abilities were more likely to have more severe problems with social and communications skills that those with better object-control motor skills, according to the study in the July issue of the journal Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly.
"So much of the focus on autism has been on developing social skills, and that is very crucial," lead author Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, said in a university news release.
"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," said MacDonald, an expert on the movement skills of children with autism.
She said the findings add to the growing body of research highlighting the link between autism and motor skill problems.
"Something which seems as simple as learning to ride a bike can be crucial for a child with autism," MacDonald said. "Being able to ride a bike means more independence and autonomy. They can ride to the corner store or ride to a friend's house. Those kind of small victories are huge."
Physical activity is linked not only to health, but to social skills and mental well-being, she noted.
The good news is that motor skills can be taught.
"We have programs and interventions that we know work, and have measurable impact on motor skill development," MacDonald said. "We need to make sure we identify the issue and get a child help as early as possible."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.