Did You Know ADHD Can Affect Your Child’s Hand-Eye Coordination?
Takeaway: Many children with ADHD also have problems with motor skills, and they’re often labelled as ‘clumsy’. Now brain science is revealing how the same mechanisms that lead to ADHD might be interfering with motor skills development, too. But these findings can also help parents process their anxieties better and help their children work around problem areas.
Children with ADHD have trouble paying attention and sitting still, but there’s often more going on in the background.
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is the result of a child’s brain developing differently. And this difference makes it much harder to pay attention and sit still. Most children get restless from time to time, but children with ADHD have attention problems in most aspects of their lives and in all kinds of settings. So, they might be fidgety and disruptive in class, impulsive and unpredictable when playing with their friends, and easily distractible when doing chores at home. What’s sometimes overlooked, though, is that children with ADHD often have other challenges that initially seem unrelated. For example, they might have anxiety issues, depression, or even autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Of late, researchers have been studying an interesting connection between ADHD and motor skills.
Researchers have discovered that children with ADHD also have problems with motor control. That is, their brains have trouble coordinating their muscles. This includes coordinating the larger muscles of their arms and legs (used to walk, run, swim, etc.) and the smaller muscles of their hands, fingers, feet, and toes (used to write, pick things up, balance, etc.). These motor issues aren’t part of a formal ADHD diagnosis, but there is a link. In fact, some researchers estimate that about one-third of children with ADHD also have motor control problems. And the connection is strong enough that specialists can sometimes predict ADHD just by looking at motor development in a child.
A recent study zeroed in on how children with ADHD struggle, in particular, to control unnecessary movements.
Children with ADHD find it hard to control impulses, and similarly, they have trouble controlling unnecessary movements. In one study, scientists asked children to perform a specific sequence of finger movements with one hand. And they found that children with ADHD unintentionally ‘mirrored’ the movements with their other hand as well. Meanwhile, children without ADHD found it much easier to keep this other hand perfectly still.
So, why the problem with motor control? Researchers have two main theories.
- The first theory involves the neurotransmitter dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals created in the brain that carry signals from one brain cell to another. Dopamine is one of 7 key neurotransmitters, and scientists think that too little dopamine in certain brain pathways can affect motor control. (These poorly-functioning pathways may also be why children with ADHD usually have weakened executive functions.)
- The other theory is to do with impulses competing for the same brain pathways. Here, the idea is that all physical actions involve multiple steps. For example, if you want to pick up a glass, you need to decide how far to reach, how fast to move your arm, how tightly to close your fingers around it, and so on. But the impulses to do each of these steps don’t occur one after the other. Rather, they all happen simultaneously and ‘fight’ to use the same brain pathway. As a result of this fight, one impulse beats the others and we act on it. This competition is carefully choreographed by specific parts of the brain which are underdeveloped in children with ADHD. So the impulses win in random sequences, making it much harder to coordinate something like picking up a glass.
This difficulty in controlling movement affects your child in many ways.
Motor control plays such an important role in your child’s daily life. For example, if she can’t run properly, she’ll have trouble playing with her friends. And if she can’t catch a ball, she’ll struggle with sports. More importantly, poor motor skills affect brain development because they are interconnected. For example, catching a ball trains her eyes and brain to respond to moving objects. And this ‘brain training’ surprisingly carries over into other functions like learning how to read. So, motor skill-challenges can indirectly affect your child’s ability to think, control impulses, make decisions, and more. And this, in turn, will affect her friendships, performance at school, and self-esteem.
As a parent, your goal will be to spot these motor skill issues early, and poor handwriting is often a useful clue.
With young children, writing by hand is still a key part of school life. And to write well, they’ll need to focus their attention, think clearly, and coordinate how their hands and fingers move. All three of these skills are affected by ADHD, so poor handwriting can be a valuable clue that there’s something to explore. Of course, there could be other reasons for poor handwriting (e.g., dysgraphia, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, etc.), so we don’t want to jump straight to ADHD. But it’s worth noting the link.
ADHD and motor skill issues can be frustrating, but there’s also hope.
What’s most frustrating for parents is that there’s no one test to spot ADHD. Instead, psychologists piece together a diagnosis using observations they make and what parents and teachers report. And since the focus is on their child’s behaviour, parents sometimes feel like they’re to blame. This is where understanding the brain science behind ADHD helps. Experiments like the ‘mirrored’ finger sequence test (from earlier) show that there are biochemical differences in the brain of children with ADHD. And these differences affect their behaviour at an unconscious level, so neither parents nor children are ‘at fault’. What gives us hope is that there are ways to deal with these differences.
The best strategy to tackle ADHD and its related challenges is to help your child work around problem areas.
Ideally, you’ll want to contact a paediatrician for a thorough evaluation. After this, an occupational therapist can create a treatment plan for your child — usually, a mix of behaviour therapy and counselling. But there are things you can do at home as well, all revolving around ‘lifestyle change’ (i.e., learning to work around problem areas). So, if your child has poor handwriting, you can try and get her permission to use a keyboard at school or perhaps some extra time to finish any writing work. The idea is to accommodate her weaknesses so that she can focus on her strengths instead. For example, if she loves inventing stories but struggles to get them down on paper, you could both try taking turns to write. So, she’ll dictate the first sentence for you to jot down, write the second herself, dictate the third, and so on. This way, you’re taking the focus off the chore of writing and putting it on her remarkable creativity.
If you think your child needs help managing her ADHD and/or her motor skill challenges, consider contacting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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