Light & Sound in treating movement difficulty | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Movement difficulties in children: how light and sound could help

First published on 13 June 2011

Updated on 31 March 2014

What did the project achieve?

“Our research focuses on helping children with movement disorders, especially children who struggle with their hand-eye coordination,” says Dr Sarah Astill of the University of Leeds. This includes children with cerebral palsy and developmental coordination disorder (also known as DCD or dyspraxia).

Around one in every 400 children in the UK has cerebral palsy and up to one in 20 has DCD.1,2 Children with these conditions can have difficulties with everyday activities such as writing, doing up buttons and catching balls, which can limit their ability to get on with life independently.

“Our work shows that children with DCD are better at reaching out to touch, or grasp, something if it is both lit up and making a noise. With this multisensory stimulation, the children’s reaction time improves so much that they react as quickly as children without a movement disorder,” says Dr Astill.

“Now we’d like to find out whether multisensory stimulation could be used therapeutically to help children gain better control of their movement,” adds Dr Astill. “All sorts of objects that are used in physiotherapy, in PE lessons at school and in play at home could easily be modified so that they light up and make a sound.”


1. NHS Choices, Cerebral palsy, How common is cerebral palsy? Website accessed 29 January 2014.

2. Lingam R, Hunt L, Golding J, Jongmans M and Emond A. Prevalence of developmental coordination disorder using the DSM-IV at 7 years of age: a UK population–based study. Pediatrics 2009; 123: e693-e700.

This research was completed on 20 May 2013

Thousands of children with disabilities in the UK have problems coordinating their movement, meaning everyday activities such as writing, or even just reaching for a toy, can seem extremely difficult. 1,2,3 Researchers are investigating whether children find it easier to reach for something if it is lit up and making a noise. If so, adding light and sound to things like balls that are used in therapy sessions, and PE lessons, might help children gain better control of their movement.


What's the problem and who does it affect?

When everyday activities are a struggle

Thousands of children in the UK have difficulties coordinating their movement, which limit their ability to get on with everyday life independently, both at home and at school, and make even the simplest activities seem like a struggle.1,2,3

Many of these children have disabilities such as cerebral palsy and developmental coordination disorder (DCD). Around 2,000 babies develop cerebral palsy each year in the UK.1 Estimates suggest DCD affects up to five per cent of children in the UK.3

Children with movement difficulties can struggle to perform everyday tasks – such as writing, drawing and doing up buttons. Physical activities, such as throwing and catching a ball, can present a huge challenge.

Children can be reluctant to join in playground games and sports, which can affect their long-term health. Sadly, the children’s friendships and academic achievement can also be damaged, and they can develop low self esteem.

Although several therapies are available, it can be far from clear what type of therapy is best for each individual child. Helping children learn the everyday skills that so many others take for granted can still be a tremendous challenge.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Turn on the lights and crank up the volume

The researchers are investigating their hypothesis that it might be easier for children with movement difficulties to reach out and touch something, or pick something up, if it is emitting light and making a noise. They suspect the extra sensory stimulation provided by the light and the sound – combining what the children can see with what they can hear – might improve children’s spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination, making it easier for them to move in the appropriate way.

Fifteen children with DCD, 15 children with cerebral palsy and 30 children who do not have movement difficulties are taking part in this study. The researchers are using specially designed equipment to monitor the children’s movement as they reach out to press a button and pick up one or two balls. They are assessing whether the children’s movement improves if the button and the ball emit light and a sound.

The researchers have already discovered, through an earlier study, that children are better at learning how to catch and throw a ball if it emits a sound, and that this is especially true for children with movement difficulties.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr S Astill BSc (Hons) PhD
LocationCentre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Institute of Membrane and Systems Biology, University of Leeds
Duration1.5 years
Grant awarded23 November 2010
Start date21 November 2011
End date20 May 2013
Grant amount£64,263.00
Grant codeSP4603, GN1793

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The researchers are experts in how children with movement difficulties control the movement of their arms and hands. They have considerable experience of working with children who have cerebral palsy and DCD. They were part of the group that developed the Leeds consensus statement on DCD in 2006 (, which covers the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of DCD.

The researchers have a strong and growing track record in the international research community. Together, they have been undertaking internationally renowned studies and generating exciting findings for the last ten years. They have published their work in prestigious journals and are regularly invited to speak at international conferences.

The team is based at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, at the University of Leeds, which has state-of-the-art laboratories that are purpose built for assessing movement.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Tackling movement difficulties

The researchers aim to help children with cerebral palsy and DCD. They are focusing on difficulties that children can have when reaching out to touch something or to pick something up. Most people take these skills for granted when doing all sorts of everyday tasks, such as turning on a light, picking up a pen or reaching for a drink, for example – the list is almost endless.

The researchers believe children who practise reaching out for objects that emit light and make a noise might gain better control of their movement, thanks in part to the added stimuli of the light and sound. Benefits could be broad ranging – children who develop good movement skills can become more confident and more independent in life, for example.

If the results are promising, the researchers plan to use them to design new training programmes. All sorts of objects that are used in physiotherapy, in PE lessons at school and in play at home could easily be modified so that they light up and make a sound.

People with other movement difficulties might ultimately benefit from this research too, including those who have suffered a stroke.


  1. Scope, 2011. Introduction to cerebral palsy [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 February]
  2. Surman, G., Bonellie, S., Chalmers, J., Colver,A., Dolk, H., Hemming, K., King, A., Kurinczuk, J., Parkes, J., Platt, M.J. UKCP: a collaborative network of cerebral palsy registers in the United Kingdom. Journal of Public Health 2006; 28(2): 148-156.
  3. Lingam R, Hunt L, Golding J, Jongmans M and Emond A. Prevalence of Developmental Coordination Disorder Using the DSM-IV at 7 Years of Age: A UK Population–Based Study. Pediatrics 2009; 123:e693-e700.
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