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Unraveling the Mysteries of Motor Planning #NAC15

by Trish on August 24, 2011 · 0 comments

in Autism

I still have a lot of great information to process from the National Autism Conference in State College, PA earlier this month, and I wanted to share my notes from the session on motor planning. It was given by Susan Thompson, who is an Occupational Therapist from Houston and runs Handy Learning Seminars, Inc (photo from her website).

This was a wonderful session. I had really been looking forward to it, and I was not disappointed. Susan is a skilled presenter and included a lot of examples for all learning styles, including kinesthetic. And I got an introduction to tai chi in the process! If you wish, you can access the handout from her presentation here.

What Is Motor Planning?

In brief, motor planning is using one’s body to learn a specific skill, transfer that skill to another setting or another demand, and then… learn again.

In her view, the most necessary piece is motivation, or what she calls essential tension – the desire to master things and move on to the next thing or the next level of difficulty. Sort of like how I might pass the level on a computer game and then choose to try the next level or even go back to see if I can get a higher score or more stars on an earlier level.

Of course, as anyone who has tried to figure out what motivates their own child knows, the critical element is challenging them without overwhelming them, and this can be a very fine line.

There are many systems in the body and different etiologies for the breakdown of motor planning, so the underlying cause of the problem will vary from person to person. Because of this, she prefers to use the term “Motor Learning.”

What Does It Take To Motor Learn?

There are three stages of motor learning:

  • Cognitive – dedicate most of the brain function to learning what to do
  • Transitional – don’t have to focus quite as hard on the task
  • Automatic – don’t have to think about any of it

A skill is not functional until it becomes automatic.

Read that sentence again: A skill is not functional until it becomes automatic. That definitely brought up some questions in my mind about how I understand what the professionals on my son’s team are saying when they evaluate and discuss my son’s abilities.

Personal example

I have been told that my son’s handwriting is functional. I agree with the observation that he is capable of forming letters and writing words properly, and yet we struggle with these tasks often because he finds them tiring and frustrating to do.

So I asked Susan about this during the break. Her answer, obviously without knowing or observing my son, was that if the person can do the skill automatically in one environment, then it is a functional skill. If changing something in the environment impacts their ability to perform the skill, then you need to look at what factors have changed and why. Such as – is there a learning disability? Is it related to executive functioning skills? How can we ameliorate the other environmental factors?

This explanation made a lot of sense to me; in fact, Michael has been diagnosed with dysgraphia and also does much worse with time pressures or the perception that something is too hard for him. Examining these factors separately from his actual handwriting ability makes it much easier to focus on the issues that are at play.

Sensory Factors

Feedback and Feedforward

Susan definitely feels that issues with the sensory processing systems affects motor learning and motor planning. She actually shared quite a bit about feedback and feedforward to explain how we incorporate our senses into learning. This definitely seems like an area I want to do a bit more reading in.

One tidbit I learned here is something she shares more about in her handwriting seminars: If you have a child or student who is having difficulty writing legibly, ask them to write smaller rather than bigger, because we take in kinesthetic information better when the movements are smaller. We write with our hands, and the muscles are small muscles, so the movements should be small.

She also mentioned that it is important to use your fingers to move the pencil and use your shoulder/arm to stabilize, rather than what some kids do, which is to stabilize the pencil with their hands and move their shoulder as they are writing. Using the proper muscles will aid in the motor learning and the end result.


Next, she talked about vision, which she calls the overlooked sensory piece. She thinks this is going to be a huge area of discovery and that the difference in how people with autism process visual information explains even more than the other sensory systems.

Of course, vision is integral to movement. However, she also brought up some things we know about autism and applied them to the processing of visual input, such as focusing on parts rather than the whole, seeing more from the peripheral than the central vision area, and seeing the details rather than the gestalt. Very interesting!

The Brain

Here we went back to the definition of motor planning and talked about how we learn, store and transfer information. Again, the big piece here is motivation – without it, learning will not take place.

Susan ended the presentation by giving some practical ideas about things to do. Probably her biggest recommendation was to get your child out of 2D play and into 3D play, i.e. limit screen time in favor of hands-on or outdoor activities. A few other principles she mentioned:

  • Perform activities with eyes open and then with eyes closed.
  • Go from whole to part.
  • Videotape the child at the task, especially when they are doing it correctly.
  • Tap into what the child enjoys and follow his or her lead.
  • Make it focused, fun and functional.
  • Use a routine: prepare them, capture their attention, and then practice, practice, pratice
  • Build for success: use chunking, chaining, move from primary energy to secondary, from cognitive to automatic

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Susan Thompson speak, I would highly recommend you go. You may also wish to take a look at her Handy Learning Activity Book if you are working with a child or student on pre-writing or early writing skills.

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