• Cory Morrison

Shoelaces can be hard: Motor coordination

Updated: Jun 13

Some people with autism may have trouble tying shoelaces because of poor fine motor skills.

What shoelace challenges can occur and how can one help correct the problem?

Why does this occur?

According to Spectrum, about 87 per cent of people on the spectrum may have a motor deficit. What happens with an autistic person's brain when they try motor activities that are hard for them, such as tying shoelaces?

Spectrum says that little connection and synchrony between the brain's visual and motor regions. The less synchronization there is, the more severe deficits may be. Other issues may include little connection between the parietal lobe and the cerebellum, weak sensory and motor region connectivity and unusual activity in motor planning areas. The parietal lobe helps hand-eye coordination, while the cerebellum helps movements.

Picture an autistic brain's connections as if only your phone had trouble connecting to a WiFi network. You have difficulty, but others in your group connect to the network fine.

How you can help

The usual loop-to-loop and bunny ear strategies might be easy for regular young children to pick up on, but depending on the autistic child, they might be hard for them.

AutismAwareness.com published a video that Kirsten Johnson, an autism mother, posted in 2016.

This video has the following steps:

  1. Tie shoelaces under.

  2. Repeat, but don't tie all the way. You may notice a tiny loop.

  3. Take one lace and put it through the hole to the opposite end.

  4. Do the same thing in the opposite direction with the other lace.

  5. You'll have two bunny ears. Pull tight.

  6. Voila!

Dr. Mary Barbera from Turn Autism Around posted a video in 2018 with her unique tips on how to help people with autism tie shoes. Barbera is an autism mother, board- certified behaviour analyst and best-selling author.

Barbera explains how to teach an autistic person to learn to tie shoes:

  1. Begin with a shoe with two different-coloured laces. This strategy can help with verbal cues.

  2. Start on a table instead of one's foot.

  3. The shoe should face away.

  4. Use short steps with five words or less. Some examples include "Pull strings tight" and "Yellow into red".

  5. Parents or people working with an autistic child can make a video model on how they tie shoelaces. This tip can especially be helpful because watching a video to learn something can be easier than doing it live.

  6. Teach or learn each step until one masters it instead of exploring them all at once.

  7. Once one learns all steps, they can tie same-colour shoelaces on their feet.

  8. Parents should let an autistic person practice every day so they can learn the skill.

Whether an autistic person may learn better from short steps, watching videos, or if they can easily pick up the usual way may depend on what type of mindset they have.

My shoelaces story

One of my biggest frustrations as a child was that I had a problem tying shoelaces. My issue was bad enough that I wore velcro shoes until I was 11 years old. Even with my mother telling me that my maternal grandfather preferred velcro shoes, it still didn't make me feel better because most of my classmates could tie laces. By the time I was around nine years old, quite a few peers had bullied me because I wore velcro shoes. Eventually, I briefly got occupational therapy for tying shoelaces because it blew my self-esteem.

I slowly picked up on the skill but would either do it unusually, or it was slower than usual to my later elementary and high school years. At least I could eventually do it without help.

My pair of tied dress shoes facing away on a table.

I still think I'm below average with this skill today. However, I can tie shoes. When I tie shoes, I start to tie them under before I cross bunny ears.

Despite my ability, in the summer months, I usually wear sandals or flip-flops. Even in colder months, I'll often wear shoes without laces but with no velcro. Still, if I want to use gym equipment or go out for a run, I'll need shoes with laces.

With lots of practice, simple steps and visual models, any person on the spectrum can tie their shoelaces.

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