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Motor Planning and Children with Autism

January 5, 2021


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. An individual with autism might have difficulty with communication and interaction with other people. They may have restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, and can often struggle with motor planning.

Motor Planning and Children with Autism

What is motor planning?

Motor planning, also called Praxis, is the planning and execution of motor tasks kids do daily. The terms fine motor skills and gross motor skills are well-known terms, but have you heard of motor planning? This is another essential skill that executes movement. It allows us to know, remember, and perform small steps that make a distinct movement or task happen. For example, the routine task of brushing your teeth can seem automatic. But our brain does lightning-fast planning before we get started and as we continue brushing. It helps determine how we will move, the steps we will take, and the order in which we should take them. Without motor planning skills, the toothbrush may never make it to your mouth. 

How does motor planning work? 

Motor planning is part of a group of skills that help us move our bodies the way we want. There are other kinds of motor skills that we use throughout our lifetime to help get things done. Gross motor skills allow us to move our large muscles to perform actions like jumping, walking, and balancing. Fine motor skills help us move smaller muscles that control our hands, wrists, and feet. These skills are smaller actions like grasping a pencil or tying your shoes. Coordination is how we organize all our physical activities so that we move more efficiently. Gross motor and fine motor skills are needed for physical actions, but something must happen before using those skills effectively.

We first must think about how we are going to move our bodies. Here is an example. As a young child, we have learned to wash our hands; someone usually showed us how to do it. Eventually, our brain had to figure out how our body would physically do what we established. How would we move our arms and fingers to get the soap? How can we hold the soap to rub our hands together with the soap? How far do we stand from the sink? Will the water splash us if we stand too close to the sink? We then must think about the order of all these steps. At the very beginning, we had to do these steps slowly. We had to adjust what we were doing, like scrubbing longer or being closer to the sink. We had to pay a lot of attention to the process. With corrections and help, we eventually were able to do it on our own. When we get these skills down, we begin to move faster and more precisely. We no longer pay as much attention to our actions. They soon become automatic. 

How to tell if a child has difficulty with motor planning?

A child who cannot motor plan their body and brain cannot communicate, so the body cannot do what it needs to do to complete a task. Some individuals with autism do not create enough energy to perform complicated motor movements like eye contact and verbal communication. A child who has difficulty with motor planning can have trouble learning to climb playground equipment, learn how to get dressed, ride a bike, etc. Typically, those skills over time will become more comfortable with practice. But this is not always the case for children with autism

When kids have difficulty motor planning, you may have heard it referred to as dyspraxia. Here are a few things you may notice when a child is attempting to do a new task: child appears clumsy, has a difficult time coming up with new ideas during play, takes longer than other children to learn new skills, has a difficult time with fine motor skills, inconsistent performance with daily tasks, trouble imitating actions, avoids physical activities, etc. A child with motor planning difficulties might try extremely hard but still struggle completing a task. Children with autism have motor difficulties because of the differences in brain wiring-affect sensorimotor integration, motor learning, and coordination. There can be problems with prediction and anticipation-affect motor planning and motor learning. It also affects postural stability and balance. Joint hypermobility-affect stability and muscle strength, which is associated with toe walking. Anxious and fearful temperament-affects willingness to participate in tasks and leads to avoidance and limited experience.

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Typically developing children make the brain connections to learn new motor tasks. They are motivated to take on new challenges and explore different ways of achieving their goals. Some children with autism, and those with developmental coordination disorder, do not learn new motor skills quickly. This could be because their brains form new connections differently. Children with autism do not easily integrate all the information needed for task learning; they may use different, less efficient pathways and may need extra practice and guidance to learn a new motor skill. However, given the right opportunities, all children with autism can improve their motor skills: it just takes time, patience, and know-how. 

Anxiety and attention issues can cause movement difficulties for individuals with autism because they have difficulty selecting the right sensory information for a task and have trouble learning through experience. Children with joint hypermobility tend to have a fearful/anxious temperament, which affects their behavior. Joint hypermobility affects the development of motor control in several ways. The joints are less stable; more muscle work is needed for good posture and movement control. Children often have difficulty sitting erect for working at a table, which affects pencil grip for handwriting or drawing, leg weakness, climbing, etc. Toe walking is related to muscle tightness and poor motor planning, rather than being a sensory issue. Many children with autism are toe walkers. 

Tips for helping your child with autism with motor planning

Does your child struggle to learn or do a new or unfamiliar task? Does he/she appear clumsy or avoid participating in physical activities? Does he/she have trouble coming up with new play ideas or knowing how to play with toys? If these questions sound familiar, your child might have difficulty with motor planning. Motor planning is the brain’s ability to conceive, organize, and carry out a sequence of foreign actions. If you have a child with motor planning challenges, here are some helpful tips. 

  • Do activities composed of a series of steps (i.e., making a sandwich, brushing their teeth, washing their hands, etc.). Help your child identify, plan, and execute the efforts to promote the ability to sequence and map out the actions. You can help by breaking down the steps to make them more manageable and attainable, building self-esteem. Here is an example of handwashing steps: 1. Turn on the water. 2. Wet hands. 3. Scrub with soap. 4. Rinse clean. 5. Dry hands. Another valuable piece would be providing a visual for your child with the steps
  • Determine what aspects of motor planning are a strength for your child (i.e., imitation, following verbal directions, sequencing, etc.). Parents need to play to these strengths when doing activities with their children to compensate for the areas of difficulty
  • Engage your child in activities that involve climbing on or over on large objects. A good example would be playing on playground equipment or coming up with an obstacle course to help your child gain basic knowledge of moving his or her body through different spaces
  • Encourage your child to come up with an idea for a new activity. This could be a way to play with a toy or equipment to promote motor planning
  • Play games that involve imitation (e.g., follow the leader, twinkle little star, etc.) to encourage your child to plan actions based on watching and copying peers. A great game you can introduce to your child with autism is Simon Says. You can first start by saying Simon Says, “Raise your hands.” The parent will begin to raise his/her hands. The child then will imitate what the parent does. 

Conclusion

Motor planning is part of group skills that help us move our body how we want it to, and children who struggle with motor planning may take longer to learn and complete physical tasks.

There are different motor skills that we use throughout our lifetime to help get things done. Gross motor skills allow us to perform actions like walking, jumping, and balancing. Fine motor skills help us control our hands, wrists, and feet. 

Trouble with motor planning may be a part of a larger problem with movement and coordination. However, there are ways you can help your child with motor planning struggles. Try doing activities in series, determine your child’s efforts and strengths of motor planning, encourage the child to climb on larger objects, encourage the child to develop new ideas, and play games involving imitation.

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