Over the course of the first year, typically-developing infants rapidly acquire skills in object-directed reaching and postural control. These skills underlie increasingly sophisticated object exploration behaviors that yield information not only about objects in the world but about the effects of the infant's own actions on those objects. Object exploration and the knowledge that it generates is, in turn, foundational for the later development of language and communication. This suggests that the emergence of reaching and the progressive achievement of greater postural control, mediated by object exploration, may have cascading and far-reaching effects on later development, not only on more advanced motor planning skills, but in domains such as communication and language that are not typically conceived as being influenced by early motor development. Conversely, delays and impairments in reaching and postural development may negatively impact object exploration and, therefore, the eventual development of later, higher-order developments in motor planning, language, and communication. The work proposed in this application is designed to shed light on these previously unexplored developmental pathways by providing systematic longitudinal data on the emergence of reaching, the growth of postural control, changes in object exploration behaviors, and later developments in motor planning, language, and communication from 2.5 to 36 months of age. The research is innovative because it employs a dense, longitudinal home-visit observation schedule and combines behavioral and kinematic data to permit close tracking of advances in reaching, self-sitting and object exploration. This multi-method approach will support a detailed examination of normative and atypical developmental trajectories in these domains and their relationship to the development of later-emerging behaviors both within and across domains of development. By focusing not only on typically-developing, low-risk (LR) infants but also on infants known to be at heightened risk (HR) for communicative delays (viz., infants with an older brother or sister diagnosed with Autistic Disorder), we will be able to assess early patterns of delay and examine any negative cascading effects that they may have This, in turn, will lay the groundwork for improvements in clinical practice and design of interventions to remediate early delays and avoid their cascading effects. Successful completion of this project will result in: a) clarification of the nature of the relationship between the growh of postural control, the development of infant reaching, and improvement in object exploration skills during the first year;b) specification of the nature and extent of delays and impairments i postural control, reaching, and object exploration in HR infants;and c) identification of any predictive relations existing between early postural and motor development and later, higher-order motor, language, and communication skills as mediated by the growth of object exploration.

Public Health Relevance

In infancy, the development of early motor and postural skills provides new opportunities for the exploration of objects;and object exploration in turn creates contexts for the development not only of later motor skills, but also language and communication. Because we currently lack a detailed understanding of the way in which this complex series of events unfolds in typical development and of how delays in early reaching and postural behaviors influence object exploration and thereby impact later development, this research will compare the behaviors and movement characteristics of infants who are or are not at heightened risk for developmental delay (infants with an older sibling diagnosed with autism) as they grow from 2.5 to 36 months of age in the ability to reach for and explore objects, sit upright without support, communicate, and use language. Illuminating the development of these early skills may open the door for improved recognition of significant delays and earlier opportunities for intervention.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-R (03))
Program Officer
Kau, Alice S
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University of Pittsburgh
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Wozniak, Robert H; Leezenbaum, Nina B; Northrup, Jessie B et al. (2017) The development of autism spectrum disorders: variability and causal complexity. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci 8: