Autism as a developmental disorder in intentional movement and affective engagement

Colwyn Trevarthen, Jonathan Delafield-Butt

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133 Citations (Scopus)
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We review evidence that autistic spectrum disorders have their origin in early prenatal failure of development in systems that program timing, serial coordination and prospective control of movements and that regulate affective evaluations of experiences. There are effects in early infancy, before medical diagnosis, especially in motor sequencing, selective or exploratory attention, affective expression and intersubjective engagement with parents. These are followed by retardation of cognitive development and language learning in the second or third year, which lead to a diagnosis of ASD. The early signs relate to abnormalities that have been found in brain stem systems and cerebellum in the embryo or early fetal stage, before the cerebral neocortex is functional, and they have clear consequences in infancy when neocortical systems are intensively elaborated. We propose, with evidence of the disturbances of posture, locomotion and prospective motor control in children with autism, as well as facial expression of interest and affect, and attention to other persons’ expressions, that examination of the psychobiology of motor affective disorders, rather than later developing cognitive or linguistic ones, may facilitate early diagnosis. Research in this area may also explain how intense interaction, imitation or ‘expressive art’ therapies, which respond intimately with motor activities, are effective at later stages. Exceptional talents of some autistic people may be acquired compensations for basic problems with expectant self-regulations of movement, attention and emotion.
Original languageEnglish
Article number49
Number of pages32
JournalFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience
Early online date8 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2013


  • autism
  • developmental disorder
  • intentional movement
  • affective engagement


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