Many school-aged children struggle to learn motor skills that their peers have already mastered. Such children, often described as “clumsy,” may have difficulties with writing and self-help skills such as dressing and self-feeding. The diagnosis of clumsiness in children is often missed because parents may not recognize their child's uncoordination as a significant medical problem. When parents mention their child's awkwardness to a physician, their concerns may be dismissed; physicians commonly reassure parents that children will outgrow clumsiness. In the past 20 years, however, research has demonstrated convincingly that in the majority of children, these motor deficits tend to persist throughout, rather than resolve during, adolescence and adulthood.1,2
In 1975, Gubbay3 coined the term “clumsy child syndrome” to describe children of normal intelligence who were without an identifiable medical or neurologic condition but had difficulties in coordination that interfered with academic performance and/or socialization. In recent years, the term “clumsy child syndrome” has been somewhat replaced by the term “developmental coordination disorder” (DCD), essentially a recapitulation of Gubbay's diagnostic criteria, that is formalized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3d ed. (DSM-III)4 and revised in the fourth edition (DSM-IV).5 Although various other terms are used to describe children with minor motor difficulties, we have confined terminology in this article to “clumsy child syndrome” and DCD, using them interchangeably.
While epidemiologic studies estimate that significant clumsiness affects 5 to 15 percent of school-aged children, the estimate with the most scientific basis is a prevalence of 6.4 percent.9,10 Significant clumsiness affects boys more often than girls.6 Incidence is not related to the child's level of education or socioeconomic status. Affected children are usually diagnosed between the ages of six and 12 years, and rarely before age five.9
While the exact cause of clumsiness is unknown, many theories attempt to explain its etiology. Some researchers emphasize the apparent difficulty these children have in planning the execution of motor tasks. This difficulty in motor planning is termed “dyspraxia.”11,12 Researchers who have studied the difficulties with motor control in the clumsy child postulate that problems with motor execution are the primary deficit.13 Other researchers point to apparent difficulties in the child's ability to understand various sensory relationships and provide research demonstrating that clumsy children have deficits in proprioception, sensory integration, and visual processing.13–15
The parents of a clumsy child may complain about their child's difficulties with everyday tasks such as tying shoelaces and brushing teeth. They may also report school problems related to poor handwriting or social rejection arising from their child's clumsiness.11 Physicians should consider the possibility of underlying clumsiness in all children who present with learning difficulties, behavior problems, and psychosomatic aches and pains. Such children should be asked whether they are embarrassed by perceived difficulties with gross or fine motor skills.
During well-child examinations of pre-school and school-aged children, physicians can often identify clumsy children by asking if the parent has concerns about clumsiness or coordination problems in the child. Research shows that standardized screening tools based on parents' concerns are as accurate as longer measures, including those that require children to demonstrate skills.17 Physicians may suspect clumsiness in school-aged children who have trouble with developmental screening tasks such as drawing, imitative finger movements, and hopping.
While it is not uncommon for clumsy children to have lifelong delays in achieving motor milestones, such delays are most significant when they begin to interfere with social-adaptive development. Motor delays may interfere with a child's ability to play with other children; difficulties with tasks such as riding a bicycle or catching a ball are common. Problems in early schooling may arise because of a crude pencil grasp and an inability to cut paper on a straight line.7 Increased friction in the home environment may result from delays in self-care skills such as buttoning clothes and tying shoelaces. Tables 1 and 29 outline the average age at which school-aged children attain selected motor skills.
|Skill||Average age of attainment (years)|
|Buttoning and unbuttoning||4|
|Dressing self (except tying shoelaces)||4.5|
|Riding a bicycle with training wheels||4.5|
|Cutting across a page with scissors||4.5|
|Coloring within the lines||4.5|
|Printing first and last name||5.5|
|Jumping down several steps||5.5|
|Riding bicycle without training wheels||6|
|Ability to spread with dinner knife||6|
|Skill||Average age of attainment (years)|
|Drawing a square||5|
|Standing on one foot for 15 seconds||5|
|Repetitive finger tapping of thumb and index finger||5.5|
|Tripod pencil grasp||5.5|
|Drawing a diagonal line||7|
|Finger gnosia (with eyes closed, can tell you which finger you touch)||8|
|Alternating foot-hop in place||8.5|
|Sequential finger tapping at rapid speed||9|
|Drawing two-dimensional cross with same dimensions||9|
|Persistent tandem stance for 10 seconds with eyes closed||10|
|Absence of choreiform movements with arms extended||10|
|Suppressing mirror movements while doing sequential finger tapping||11|
|Drawing three-dimensional cube with all sides angulated||12|
Observing the child at home and in school can help a physician gauge the degree of clumsiness. Teachers may report that the child frequently bumps into classmates, desks, and chairs. Clumsy children may collide with objects or drop them. At home and in physical education classes, these children may shy away from competitive sports and may require repeated instruction in learning a new motor skill.16
A family history must be obtained to determine the presence of familial clumsiness, ADHD, learning disabilities, or other neurodevelopmental disorders. It is important to ask about a family history suggestive of serious neurodegenerative disorders, typified by a history of wasting and/or early death.16
The physical examination should begin with the recording of vital signs, height, weight, and head circumference. A general physical examination may alert the physician to alternate explanations for clumsiness.12 Table 3 includes several physical findings that will direct the physician to look elsewhere for the etiology. The neurologic examination should focus on evaluation of the fundus of the eye, cranial nerves, muscle tone, strength, and reflexes.
|Lost skills||Degenerative disorders (e.g., adrenoleukodystrophies, mitochondrial dystrophies), PDD spectrum|
|Difficulty rising to standing position, Gowers' maneuver||Duchenne's muscular dystrophy|
|Ataxia, dysarthria, dysmetria||Cerebellar damage|
|Poor muscle tone||Mental retardation, peripheral nerve disease, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, juvenile spinomuscular disease, cerebellar hypoplasia|
|Increased muscle tone||Cerebral palsy|
|Asymmetry of muscle tone||Cortical damage on side of brain or spinal cord|
|Absent deep tendon reflexes||Muscular or peripheral nerve disease|
|Asymmetry of nail beds||Associated with growth disturbance such as mild hemiparesis|
|Skeletal abnormalities||Orthopedic disorder, genetic disorder|
|Dysmorphic facies, minor physical abnormalities (e.g., ear length, hand or finger length)||Genetic syndrome|
Symptoms such as weakness, ataxia, and pronounced hypotonia or hypertonia, particularly when asymmetric, are inconsistent with a diagnosis of DCD and should compel the physician to expand the diagnostic possibilities. Children with DCD are not thought to have focal brain abnormalities, and studies such as magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography are not useful in their evaluation16 [Evidence level C, consensus opinion].
|Test||Description||Abnormal result||Neurodevelopmental skill tested|
|Rapid alternating movement||Child quickly alternates pronation and supination of the hand||Dysdiadochokinesis (i.e., excessive flailing)||Requires ability to inhibit proximal muscle groups|
|Sustained motor stance||Child is asked to stand erect for 15 seconds with arms extended, feet together||Inability to maintain position for 15 seconds||Balance, somesthetic input, vestibular function|
|Tandem balance||Child stands with one foot directly in front of the other, holding posture for 15 seconds with eyes closed||Inability to sustain posture for 15 seconds||Motor monitoring, self-righting skills, vestibular function, somesthetic input, balance, body position sense, selective motor inhibition, motor persistence|
|Hopping in place||Child hops in place, alternating between left and right foot in a specified sequence||Inability to hop, inability to perform particular hopping pattern, poor rhythm||Motor planning, motor sequencing, short-term motor memory, ability to set and maintain rhythm|
Clumsiness is not a progressive condition. Any loss of milestones already achieved or evidence of progressive uncoordination must be considered a red flag because it precludes the diagnosis of DCD. Physicians would be wise to consider that many progressive neurologic disorders may initially appear to be nonprogressive.9 Careful follow-up is required when the diagnosis of DCD is less than certain.
Moderate to severe mental retardation is commonly associated with motor delays and poor dexterity. Usually this degree of mental retardation is not difficult to identify, but when there is a concern about mental retardation in a clumsy child, formal cognitive testing is indicated.19 However, physicians should keep in mind that children with DCD generally have normal intelligence.
Although ADHD commonly coexists with clumsy child syndrome, children with isolated ADHD can appear to be clumsy. This apparent clumsiness is caused by inattentiveness and impulsivity rather than by uncoordination. These children lack any true motor difficulties and, as they grow, their apparent clumsiness usually disappears.9 Making the distinction between children with ADHD and children with both DCD and ADHD may be particularly difficult in preschool and early primary-school years.
ACQUIRED BRAIN INJURY
While children are capable of remarkable recovery from even devastating traumatic brain injury, physical, cognitive, and emotional problems often persist. Traumatic brain injury in the very young is usually caused by motor vehicle crashes, falls (e.g., from walkers or shopping carts), and assault (e.g., shaken baby syndrome). Visuomotor and gross motor deficits are among the many reported sequelae of traumatic brain injury.20,21 Children with a history of significant head trauma should be fully evaluated for acquired brain injury before the diagnosis of clumsy child syndrome can be made.
Other causes of apparent clumsiness include visual impairment, orthopedic disorders, mild cerebral palsy, hereditary ataxia, and congenital chorea.
Research suggests that the motor deficits of DCD persist throughout adulthood and can be associated with significant difficulties in adjustment. A number of prospective studies have examined motor, scholastic, and psychosocial outcomes in clumsy children. Research has demonstrated convincingly that motor deficits from childhood persist into adolescence. Such deficits are often associated with academic, emotional, and behavioral problems beyond those of peers without DCD1,8 [Evidence level B, other evidence].
When diagnosing clumsiness in a child, the family physician should first demystify the condition for the family. Parents need to know that these motor difficulties are likely to persist but will probably be less troubling in adulthood.11 The physician may ask an older child whether he or she is teased about uncoordination, while expressing recognition, sympathy, and support. Teachers should be informed that what may appear to be sloppiness or laziness is the manifestation of a disability.
Clumsy children may be encouraged to participate in sports such as swimming and horseback riding to help them experience some athletic success.11 Some schools will alter a child's academic and physical education classes so that the activities match the child's motor abilities. While there is little evidence that occupational therapy produces sustained improvement in general motor skills, such therapy can serve to improve particular motor skills, educate parents, and address issues of self-esteem.22
Occupational therapy, individualized to meet the particular needs of a clumsy child, appears to be the best treatment approach based on current data.23–25 Research is producing data that may discern whether particular techniques, such as cognitive approaches, are more effective than other forms of occupational therapy.23,26 The evidence that these children suffer much more than their peers from academic, emotional, and behavioral problems should compel us to intervene on their behalf.