What is Motor Planning?

When Joshua first got diagnosed with autism, so began the long journey of countless Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy appointments, with some Vision Therapy, and Bio-Feedback thrown in there for extra fun.  As typical, the first few appointments involve assessments and when the results are explained to me, I’m introduced to such words as “motor planning”, “vestibular”, “under stimulated vs over stimulated”, and the list goes on.

What is discussed a lot lately with Joshua’s treatment is how he is working on “motor planning”, otherwise known as apraxia.  I searched online to try to briefly describe what this motor planning is and found this wonderful explanation from http://valeriedejean.org/uno12.html

Motor planning or praxis is the ability of the brain to conceive, organize, and carry out a sequence of unfamiliar actions. In dyspraxic syndrome there is a reduced ability to carry out non-learned movements, even though there is adequate motor and conceptual capacity to do so. Tactile, kinesthetic, and vestibular sensory information are registered from the body and organized into neuronal models, which are replications of the environment and our mechanical selves. This neuronal map, known as body schema, permits effective programming of the sequence of actions involving the whole body that are required in motor behavior. Difficulty with imitative behavior is a key indicator of dyspraxia necessitating that children organize themselves cognitively, rather than perform tasks automatically. This often becomes a source of frustration for them. Praxis is believed to be a single function involving three basic processes: ideation or generating an idea of how one might interact with the environment; motor planning or organizing a program of action; and execution or the actual performance of a motor act.

Motor planning difficulties can manifest on a larger scale in the child’s difficulty in organizing their environment and themselves in that environment.  Learning routine and how one fits into the routine may take longer. Children with difficulties may perform slowly, or not be able to perform at all, when asked to follow multi-stepped directions. They may require a longer exposure to a new activity in order to learn it. They may initially use trail and error approaches to a task until they can generate a motor plan about how to approach the activity. This can also carry on to higher levels of reasoning. They can have difficulty organizing their thoughts and language to express themselves.

Finally, sensory integration disorders in general can contribute to low self-esteem and anxiety. These children can see they are not doing as well as their peers, however since it is a “hidden difficulty” they may see themselves as “dumb” not recognizing that they may be working twice as hard to compensate. The cost of compensation may be a sense of frustration and the awareness that their body is not keeping up with the tasks that their good little minds are able to conceptualize. It is important to normalize the neurologically based functions of the sensory systems to provide a better foundation for acquisition of higher level skills.

What happens if one or more of those senses are not being interpreted properly. It is easier to understand the problems of a blind or deaf person. Problems of the vestibular, tactile, or proprioceptive system are much more difficult to identify yet the effects of insufficient processing in these system is profound. These three senses are the basis for the organization of the whole nervous system and problems can manifest themselves in a multitude of ways..

Essentially, this is why it’s such hard work for Joshua to do such simple tasks that we take for granted:  adjusting his underwear so he’s “all in there”, putting his clothes on properly so they aren’t sideways; putting socks and shoes on and zipping or buttoning.  Because of the pathways in his brain aren’t operating efficiently, it’s more work for him to learn these and other skills.


The therapies he is getting are certainly helping as he has now mastered zipping his coat and is learning how to unbutton his shirt without ripping the buttons off.  The important thing I need to remember, as his mother, is to allow for sufficient time for him to do these tasks and not rush into helping him.  He’s enjoying mastering these so much he even brings me jackets he finds and says to me, “Mom, let’s practice zipping!”  His therapist tell me that he requires more repetition before those neural pathways are formed as they should.  The neat thing I found while researching this subject is there are some fun activities we can do with our kids who are struggling with autism to help these skills develop:  Therapy Fun Zone had a huge list to choose from, which also, by the way, are great gift ideas for Birthdays or Holidays!


This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 at 4:29 pm and is filed under Autism Resources, Autism Treatment, General Autism Info. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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