Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a problem that affects 5-8% of school age children. The diagnosis for the condition is primarily based around poor movement control that impacts an individual’s daily routine but is unattributed to other neurological or behavioral problems. DCD is a heterogeneous disorder that has a high rate of coexistence with other problems such as ADHD, Dyslexia and Autism. Individuals diagnosed with DCD generally suffer from poor motor control throughout childhood and adolescence, with physiotherapy based interventions showing limited success in reducing symptoms.
Due to the nature of the disorder which disrupts important fine and gross motor skills, children suffering from DCD and movement coordination deficits commonly withdraw from activities that require these skills such as playground play, sports and playing musical instruments. As a result, research has found a common association between DCD and the performance of ‘Fundamental Movement Skills’ with other physical and mental health problems such as obesity, coronary heart disease, social withdrawal, low self efficacy and lack of cardiovascular fitness compared with ‘typically developing’ children. There is plenty of evidence to support this relationship and the hugely negative impact these factors have on children with movement problems right through adolescence and into adulthood (See papers by Bartlett et al., 2008a; 2008b; 2009).
Despite the quantity of research in this area, the aetiology of DCD remains unclear. Theories suggest that there are disruptions in the kinematic control of DCD sufferers which means they are inaccurate in the temporal and spatial aspects of motor skills. For example when catching a ball, a child with DCD is likely to have slower or more inconsistent (jerky) motor responses and may be unable to get the correct positioning of their fingers, hands and body in relation to the trajectory of the ball. This will in all likelihood cause the child to be unsuccessful in catching a ball. However in my opinion it is not likely that DCD simply causes an inability to move and grasp the ball. In a task such as catching, visual perception is vital to be able to judge the timing and position of the ball’s trajectory before the movement is even initiated. Continuing with the catching example; if a child’s visual perception of the ball’s trajectory is inaccurate or inefficient compared to a typically developing child, it stands to reason their accuracy of movement will be affected.
Research of visual perception and the effect of efficient eye movements and gaze behavior in the performance of motor skills have been extensively researched in the field of sport and Health Sciences. Studies have shown expert performers have significantly more ‘efficient’ eye movements in the preparation and execution of sports skills such as golf putting; basketball free throws; football penalty taking utilizing a smaller number of fixations for a longer duration, enabling them to gather more in depth visual information from only relevant visual sources.
One particular gaze behavior, known as the quiet eye (QE), has consistently provided a distinction between expert performers over novices and successful performances over unsuccessful performances in various sports. The quiet eye is defined as the “final fixation or tracking gaze that is located on a specific location or object within the visuomotor workspace within 3° of visual angle (or less) for a minimum of 100 ms” (Vickers, 2007, p.11). Research indicates that an earlier onset and longer QE duration may significantly improve performance.
More recently QE training studies have produced encouraging results in sport skills but also in training skills such as laparoscopic surgery. This research is demonstrating that implicit learning of gaze behaviour is an effective tool for the retention of motor skills, but also for maintaining performance under pressure tests. Studies are showing that skills that are learnt implicitly through gaze behavior are reproduced more effectively and accurately under pressure particularly compared to skills that are learnt through technical instruction.
The implications of these findings for children with DCD and other movement problems are very exciting. If novices can be taught to putt like pros and medical students to master the fine motor skills involved in laparoscopic surgery in a just a week of gaze training, than maybe we can use these effective teaching mechanisms to get children with DCD to overcome deficits in visuomotor perception to improve their performance of skills such as throwing, catching, balancing and hitting. Even a small improvement in these sorts of skills may have a huge impact on their perceptions of physical activity, playground games and participation in sports.