Issues With Motor Skills In The Autistic Child...

Difficulty Using A Pencil... The Inability To Point With A Finger... Inappropriate Use Of Stairs... Difficulty Drinking From A Straw...

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The autistic child had many issues with motor skills.   These included the inappropriate use of stairs, difficulty in drinking from a straw or cup, difficulty holding a pencil, issues with the brushing of teeth, the inability to look at oneself in the mirror or to maintain eye contact, issues with potty training and with toe walking, etc. 

As with so many other things in the life of the autistic child, in my view, many of these issues were also explained by the autistic child’s lack of understanding of a situation based on the inability to properly process the parts to the whole.

Difficulty Using A Pencil…

I found I had to give Zachary time to familiarize himself with anything new in life... I truly believed this "familiarization process" he always went through was simply his way of trying to make sense of new "parts" in his world.   Pencils were no exception.   Before he could actually use them as tools, he had to "familiarize himself" with them.    He had to align them, stack them, etc. until the "newness" was gone.  Only then could I even begin to put a pencil in his hand and help him draw/write.  I found that to be true with almost all new tools.

In my opinion, if a child had difficulty perceiving the part from the whole, then the act of placing a pencil in his hand, by definition, introduced a new "part" to his body... one he was unable to understand and cope with... one he was unable to separate in terms of "what belonged to him" verses "what was a separate entity" in and of itself... because once these "parts" (the pencil and the hand) touched, to the autistic child, they became a "whole" that needed to be understood in terms of its parts... and unless these "parts" were well defined, the autistic child  could experience frustration as a result of the simple act of trying to hold a pencil. 

Clearly defining the hand as an entity in and of itself, the pencil as an entity in and of itself, a sheet of paper, in and of itself and stating that "I am putting the pencil in your hand" as I did it, helped Zachary with this issue.   In terms of the hand, all fingers needed to be defined... I started by counting them… the easiest way to do this was by saying:  1 finger + 1 finger = 2 fingers... working all the way up to "5 fingers" as I counted and raised each finger on my hand and then showed Zachary he too had “1 finger + 1 finger = 2 fingers”... again, all the way to 5 fingers.  

To define the pencil, I told Zachary about the pencil's color, that the "thing inside" was "lead for writing on paper" as I showed him how the pencil made a mark on paper when I used it... the pencil mark itself was also defined as "a mark"... I used shapes familiar to Zachary, such as a circle, and defined the shape as I made it with the pencil on the paper.   In addition, I defined the "eraser" as something to "erase a mistake" as I showed Zachary how to do it.   Making a "mistake" in a familiar shape was an easy way to put across the concept of a "mistake" as I erased it.   For example, I stated: "let's make a circle" but then, I actually drew a square... Zachary would understand that "this was not a circle" and hence, I could say:  "oh, no... that's not a circle... that's a square... I made a mistake... let's fix it" as I then erased the square and said:  "all gone" and drew a circle.

Notice again, that every single aspect was defined... the "thing I drew", the "mistake", the "let's fix it"... to help Zachary understand the issue that "this was wrong but there was something we could do to fix it"... the concept of "let's fix it" became a huge coping mechanism for Zachary in terms of understanding how parts fit into the whole... as did the concept of "it's broken" ... or "it's stuck"... all these simple concepts helped him to cope with the world at times when it just did not seem to make sense to him... in so many issues... until they could each be individually addressed.   I encouraged all parents to use these simple phrases to help their children cope.  For more on this, see Words to Cope©.

By saying:  "it's stuck", for example, I could joke with Zachary about the fact that the pencil was in his hand, on his skin, without causing him too much stress.   The concept of "it's stuck" allowed "things to be put together to form a new whole" without creating a huge amount of stress.   This concept, I used to help with overall issues with touch, and with anything else as it related to things "going together", like stickers on things, bandages on skin, etc.

With Zachary, I found doing these simple things helped him tremendously.   By working with familiar things, I easily reduced stress levels to help him understand the issue of "creating a mark" without introducing a new stressful concept.  At first, since I used a shape he understood and loved... his love of circles (a "whole entity" in and of itself) allowed me to trigger his interest as I helped him deal with the overall issue of holding  a pencil.  The sheet of paper also needs to be defined... I explained "a sheet of paper" to Zachary as something "to write on" as I showed him how to make a circle or letter on it... something he was familiar with.   As I moved on to "other markings", I defined those too... whether they were just "marks" or "sketchings", etc., ... they were defined as something to help Zachary cope with this new concept of "writing".    The sheet of paper, I further explained in terms of its color (i.e., "this paper is white"), its shape (i.e., "the paper looks like a rectangle" - as I showed him the outline of the paper with my hand), its surface (i.e., "it's smooth - as I used his fingers and pushed them across the page), etc.   Thus using familiar concepts of color, shape and texture further helped with the overall issue of "writing" in terms of removing the stress from the situation.

Note that I did not use a "workbook"... just one plain sheet of paper... at first, one that had no lines... then one with lines as Zachary became familiar with the concept of "paper".   A workbook involved a lot more in terms of defining the "parts" that made up the "whole" in terms of a "workbook".   The concept of "pages" to a workbook was a difficult concept for Zachary to grasp... a workbook  (or any book) involved a "front cover", "back cover", pages in the middle (if not numbered, they became much harder to define for the autistic child... thus, it was extremely difficult to explain how the "pages" fit together to form a whole).    In addition, a workbook could have writing on it and if the child did not yet understand the alphabet and how letters "fit together" to form words, then, that also introduced a whole new area to deal with.  A plain, non-lined sheet of paper was best to get started with this issue.   As the Zachary progressed, I moved to "lined paper", and so on... always completely defining the new "parts" to each tool!

Given that colors could play a huge role in how the autistic child perceived his world (autistic adults report that as children, they perceived objects as "colors" – see section on Colors), I also found another great tool for Zachary.

A friend showed me a new mechanical pencil, marketed under the name Rainbow Stix.  These mechanical pencils had something I had never seen before...the lead that you inserted had three colors - red, blue and green.   Simply turning your wrist slightly as you wrote made you write in multiple colors.  :o)

For Zachary, these mechanical pencils provided that fascinating visual and colorful "unexpected"... multiple colors apparently coming from the same object... first the mark was red, then blue, then green... he was totally captivated by these pencils right from the start!  As I wrote, I called out the colors.  After I showed him how I could write in multiple colors, with the same pencil, apparently not doing anything to make the colors change, he just had to try it for himself - he picked up the pencil and started to draw/make lines on a piece of paper.   He found these totally cool... and so did I!  :o)  The neat thing was that although the lead had three colors, as you wrote and the colors mixed, you ended up writing in a whole bunch of colors.  You received four mechanical pencils per pack, with 12 refill leads (each about 2 inches long) for about $2.50.  You can buy these at Staples stores.   The company that made them was called Pentech, a subsidiary of Jakks Pacific, Inc., a maker of children's toys.   The company could be reached at 310-456-7799.    For more on the role of color in the life of the autistic child, see my section on called  "Color:  The Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Rainbow©"!  :o) 

The Inability To “Point With A Finger”…

It had often been observed that autistic children were often unable to point with a finger…something even a child well under a year of age was able to do.  Yet, it could take well past the age of three or more for an autistic child to master this skill.   I had not noticed this issue in Zachary for a very long time…but, indeed, he did not point until December of 2000.  He was almost 2 ½ years old the first time he actually pointed!

What was it with finger pointing that was so difficult for the autistic child?

It was not that the autistic child's finger could not physically make the motion.  Zachary’s two hands worked perfectly well – physically - able to move and bend just fine.  Therefore, if not a physical impairment, why could so many autistic children not point with their finger?  If not a physical inability to point, then, this “inability”, I thought, must somehow be in the "refusal" to point.  It was not that the autistic child "could not point", it was that he "would not point".   There was a huge difference!

This was another issue that was so easily explained based on what I believed was the autistic child's inability to properly process the parts that made up the whole... the inability to understand the whole without first understanding the parts that made up that whole... the inability to process the "partial" or "in between" situation.   

To "point" necessitated that a child separate "a part" from "the whole"... "a finger" from "the hand or fist".   Given my theory of the inability to properly integrate the parts to the whole, it made perfect sense that an autistic child would refuse to point.   To do so, would separate a “part” from the whole – something the autistic mind would not do on its own without first having an understanding of what it meant to point and how that “pointing finger” fit into the whole – in other words, understood the “meaning” of pointing!

Therefore, the key was in showing your child that a finger was "but a part" to the "whole"... that a "finger" was "one fifth" of the hand and in “explaining” why you point.

This was why the whole concept of using fractions to show a child a "part" verses "the whole" was so, so critical to helping these children cope with everyday situations or things that came so naturally to the rest of us, but not to them.   Zachary developed this skill on his own... but it took a long time (see below).   If my child had not developed this skill, I would use do the following to help him learn "how to point":  I would use fractions to teach the concept of "parts" making up "the whole" as I have explained in the section on using FRACTIONS.   Then, I would take his hand, and count out the parts, saying: 1 finger  = 1 fifth of a hand, 2 fingers = 2 fifths of a hand, 3 fingers = 3 fifths of a hand, 4 fingers = 4 fifths of a hand, 5 fingers = 5 fifths of a hand, 5 fifths = 1 hand.     That way, the child could see that "parts" had labels, too, and can "stand" on their own as an entity in and of themselves... that they did not always have to be part of the "whole".   Then, I would teach the reason behind pointing – “to show something”.   :o) 

Zachary finally figured out how to point to an object on his own... as I was sure many autistic children eventually did.   The Christmas tree I had put up that year had fascinated him.  He had seen a Christmas tree in some of his children's videos (i.e., Seasons by First Impressions, 800-521-5311, and was totally fascinated by this object now in our living room.  His fascination overtook his desire for "wholeness of the hand".  The Christmas Tree, as labeled in his video, and now physically in our living room, provided an "entity" in and of itself - Zachary understood a "Christmas tree".   He made the "connection" between the trees in his videos and that in our living room.   Out of the blue, he walked up to the tree, pointed to it and said:   "a Christmas tree".   That was on Dec. 23rd, 2000... he was 2 1/2 years old at the time.   After that, I practiced making him "point" using an "I Spy" book by Jean Marzollo, and an "I Spy" software program (as explained in my first book).  From that time on, Zachary has been able to point "on command"... when asked to show me something... he still preferred not to point on his own unless asked but, if asked to point to something, he could now do it easily and with absolutely no stress.

Yet, another issue explained so fully by the autistic child's inability to understand the whole without first understanding the parts that made up that whole!  :o)

Inappropriate Use Of Stairs…

My theory on the autistic child's inability to understand the whole without first understanding the parts also explained the inappropriate use of stairs I came to see in Zachary.   He had previously used stairs properly, however, after a time, I noticed the only way he now went down stairs was by taking BOTH feet and jumping on ONE step at a time... all the way down.   Gone was the appropriate use of alternate feet and alternate stair.  

Again, if you think about it, the appropriate use of stairs would require each step (the parts) be identified as part of the whole.  In addition, as the child went down the stairs, the feet were not perceived as a "part" to the whole.   They were not easily "integrated" with the stairs as one moved down stairs in the appropriate manner.   “Feet” were moving parts, but not “a part” to the whole (the stairs).  Jumping down stairs, one at a time, using both feet at a time would not allow the child to perceive this "union of his feet with the stairs"... this addition of a new "part" (a foot) to the whole (the stairs).  

The brain of the autistic child necessitated complete accuracy in everything - and hence, everything had to fit together perfectly to avoid frustration… and moving parts did not “fit” into the equation of the “whole”.    The introduction of "new parts" - feet going down stairs one at a time - would introduce frustration to the autistic child as he would be unable to "integrate" those "new parts" with what was previously a "whole" in and of itself (the unit stairs), especially given the motion involved in this task.   This was why labels were so important to the autistic.  In this particular situation, the child first had to perceive the "unit of stairs" and understand those stairs as an entity in and of itself... with multiple levels… and then, had to integrate moving feet on those stairs.   The "multiple levels" of stairs, in and of themselves posed a special problem for these children.   Anything on the stairs, such as shoes, etc., also introduced a variable to be dealt with and understood as did the introduction of the "feet" themselves as they went down, in the normal alternating foot, alternating step pattern.   To go down stairs by “jumping with both feet at once” did away with the “partiality” involved with “feet” themselves as they could be kept out of one’s line of sight.   For more on this issue, see the section on Motion.

In my opinion, once again, to obtain "flexibility" with this task, the key was to come up with the "correct labeling".   For example, to say to an autistic child:  "go down the stairs" would be an inaccurate label.   The stairs were comprised of "steps"... and as such, the steps should be labeled as "steps" and the child told that, "steps - put together made stairs".    Individual steps were not perceived as parts to the whole entity until labeled as such... as steps.   Perhaps, since so many autistic children seemed to love counting, that labeling the steps as "this is step 1", "this is step 2" and so on, all the way down and then showing the child that "step 1 + step 2 + step 3 and so on = STAIRS" (to specifically, verbally give a child such an equation defining the "parts" as steps and ending with the definition of the whole as  "= stairs" would be helpful in solidifying this concept for some children.

There could also be “truly sensory” issues at play also in the inappropriate use of stairs... that the "banging" on the soles of the feet may create a sensation the child likes.   For Zachary, encouraging the proper use of stairs was as simple as labeling the steps, counting them for him,  and "showing him", physically, how to use the stairs properly and telling him to "do it this way" as I showed him the proper way to go down steps and defined his "right foot" and "left foot" as each hit the appropriate alternating step.   Once I did that, he caught on fine and started "practicing" using the stairs properly on his own.  I also think that auditory issues may come into play in this one.   When Zachary "practiced" going down the stairs on his own, I found him to be "rather shaky" and not well balanced.     I thus wondered if perhaps there were auditory issues at play, also, that interfered with his actual physical balance as he went down the steps and whether or not there was actual, physical damage to the ear structure as well.  Since he had been on enzymes, Zachary's auditory issues have greatly improved... as had his use of stairs.  :o)

Difficulty In Drinking From A Cup Or Straw…

Why Are Such Simple Skills So Hard To Learn For So Many Autistic Children?

Again, the difficulty in mastering basic tasks was easily explained based on the role of partiality in the life of the autistic child.   The act of drinking from a cup or straw involved taking a "part" from the "whole".   Thus, I was not surprised that this would be an issue for many autistic children.  Obviously, the gratification that came from drinking something that tasted good easily reinforced this behavior so that this was an easy skill to teach/learn once understood or tried successfully even just once!    Again, fractions could be a great help with this issue, as would be simply "counting".  For example, you could say:   "Take 1/2 of the juice" or "take 5 sips" while showing the autistic child how to do this and counting "your sips" as you drank and swallowed.    :o)

Recently, as I sat in church, the pastor gave a sermon on building a memorial… something to leave your children… from a spiritual perspective.   As I sat there and listened, he used examples of how children see things so much differently than do adults.   One of the examples he gave had to do with the task of “drinking from a straw”.   Of course, when I heard this, my ears really “perked up”… not that they were not earlier, but now, I was especially interested in what he had to say in terms of how it may relate to this issue in autistic children.

As he began his story of a child learning how to use a straw, he mentioned how the father had tried and tried to get his little boy to learn how to use a straw, but that for some reason, the child still had a lot of difficulty with this simple task… until his brother chimed in with:  “just blow backwards”!

How interesting!   I could certainly see how this could tie in with the autistic child’s difficulty in drinking from a straw – especially given what I knew of Zachary’s issues with changes in direction! 

Although everyone else in church laughed and found this to be a “cute story”… I, personally, felt like jumping from my pew and yelling:  “Eureka”!

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