Loops! I Did It Again!

“Hi, how are you?” If I asked you that question, chances are you might respond with “Great, how are you?” right? Or have you ever had a waiter say “Enjoy your meal!” and you responded “You too!” UGH! They are automatic, overlearned responses, or motor loops. In some cases motor loops are okay (though some can make us cringe!), but for people with apraxia, sometimes those loops can become really dysregulating and can really impede their ability to move beyond the loop. Perhaps you’ve been there…if you don’t complete the loop just right, it can become really disrupting or upsetting.  We know that we don’t want to feed the loop.  We also know that changing it up, or scrambling that loop can be really helpful to avoid dysregulation and get the motor back on track. 

We have to help our spellers and it’s all about BALANCE. We want to bring balance to the brain, in the way we address motor loops and in the way that we get spellers through it. To understand motor loops, we have to take a look at the brain and not only understand the role that thinking plays, but also the role that motor plays. Motor action is the process by which we use our neurological systems to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a motor movement. When it comes to motor action, there are two types: purposeful, which is planned, and protective which is unplanned. Within these two groups, there are four main types of motor. Each of which is VERY IMPORTANT in guiding all of our actions.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakersPurposeful motor is planned. Think about when you first learned to drive a car, or first learned to walk…this is purposeful motor. Then you have automatic motor, which is planned as well, but because practiced purposeful movement becomes permanent and automatic, this is where those motor loops fall – when automatic motor kicks into overdrive.  Purposeful and automatic motor take place in the cortical area of the brain, or the “thinking” part of the brain. Just below the cortical area of the brain is the subcortical area, which is where unplanned motor occurs, or those things that we are doing without thinking. This is either impulsive motor (think grabbing those tasty fries off of a stranger’s plate) or reflexive (think pulling your hand away from a hot stove), both originating from the subcortical area.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

We also need to understand praxis. Praxis is all about structuring ideas and then using those ideas to guide and execute a motor action. We use praxis every day! To go to the bathroom, to brush our teeth, to make ourselves a meal, or to speak. We use it to hula hoop, to try new motor tasks, to learn to dance…to execute any and all motor tasks big and small! It seems simple but it is not! It is a complicated process. Praxis is creating an idea, making a plan, initiating and executing the action, and finally reflecting, adjusting, and adapting. If one part of this is not working properly, or if we switch any of those steps around, then the movement will not be carried out smoothly. For our students,  APRAXIA affects the smooth execution of an action. For our guys it’s really the initiation and the execution part that where they have difficulty; it’s the motor component of praxis where we are seeing that breakdown through coaching. We know they have an idea, and we know that they can make a plan, but the body has a difficult time executing that plan, whatever it may be.

When working through motor loops – keep praxis in mind. We want to build purposeful motor to increase body control and ability…and it takes practice. We want to spend time in each step and PRACTICE each one. The big step is the practicing the purposeful motor of initiating and executing the action, but don’t forget the beginning part – the cognitive piece of creating an idea and making a plan. We know our students know what they have to do, but we want to really help them break down those steps. 

Motor loops are kinesthetic movements of the mouth or body, and they can be either calming or excitatory. When we see calming loops, these are those motor patterns, both verbal and full body, that are pattern-like. They are harmonic soothers for an overstimulated body and there is no emotion involved. This is an over-learned motor pattern that has now become a mechanical action and it happens without thinking, and when you see this the student is regulated and able to engage. These are what we call stims. They begin as a defense to being overstimulated, and they can actually HELP learning!

Most loops come from emotions and begin as calming soothers. However from there, they may become excitatory depending on involvement, and if it is not scrambled right away, it will become stronger and harder to break. They become AUTOMATIC motor, they happen without thinking, and they are not purposeful! They inhibit learning, because they are all consuming, and it becomes hard for others to engage when they are occurring. With excitatory loops you will see a loss of control as well as dysregulation.

What can a loop look like? Well, it could be repeating the lines from a movie, repeating the same word, phrase, or question, singing, repeating an action over and over…the list goes on and i’m sure many of you reading this have your own examples to add to the list! But what can we, as practitioners, parents, and CRPs do? We want to REDIRECT the motor and bring purpose to the action. Perhaps have them say the letters out loud as they poke if they are on the letterboard, or read their answer out loud. If they are singing, have them sing the words to a new song that you are teaching in that moment…in other words, bring it back to PURPOSEFUL MOTOR, and the thinking, cortical region of the brain!

Loop breakers is a term that we like to use at Growing Kids Therapy Center. We want to scramble that over-practiced motor that a student gets stuck in, specifically the excitatory ones which can impact learning, autonomy, participation, and regulation. We have lots of ideas about what we can use for loop breakers, but we always like to ask the experts, so we asked our autistic adults in Tribe, and these are their ideas! They engage the motor in different ways, but in ENGAGING and PURPOSEFUL ways to scramble those dysregulating loops. 

  1. “Tap a beat with your finger.” This is coordinated movement that requires controlling speed. Try it with a metronome, or come up with your own beats, while slowing it down or speeding it up!
  2. “Go for a walk, focus on the sounds of nature.” – Changing the environment is a great way to scramble a loop, and this one engages other senses and provides an opportunity for exercise as well! A win-win!
  3. “Keep hands busy with crafts or projects.” – This can be really great fine motor practice that engages the brain! Sometimes you have to teach and do these crafts together before they can do it more independently. Think perler beads, friendship bracelets, word searches, paint by sticker, etc.
  4. When in doubt, dance it out!!! – We’re talking purposeful dancing, requiring whole body engagement. Pull up a video tutorial, I highly recommend the Electric Slide or The Hustle, and focus on specific movements for each of the body parts.

The important thing is to go in and make a pathway that allows the loop to break! Try to
engage the motor in a purposeful task to give the student a sense of control. Once they have that, they will be able to increase that control as they continue to be engaged as we redirect to more efficient pathways in the brain!

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

The author and friends dancing the Electric Slide at the Growing Kids Therapy Center Silent Disco.


Growing Kids Therapy Center Parent Cohort, Motor Loops and Anxiety Seminar.(with thanks and acknowledgment to former contributors to the GKTC Parent Cohort – Janine Abalos, Bryana Williams, and Roxy Sewell). The next Parent Cohort begins in September 2020. For more information, contact Julie@growingkidstherapy.com


S2C, Spelling to Communicate, S2C Practitioner, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakersKelly Berg is an S2C Practitioner at Growing Kids Therapy Center and a member of the I-ASC Leadership Cadre living in Herndon, Virginia. She very frequently responds “You too!” when told “Enjoy your meal!” or “Have a nice trip!” 



The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through training, education, advocacy and research.  I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association

4 responses to “Loops! I Did It Again!”

  1. I love this article! My son Peter has these motor loops and stumbled on very similar methods, so reading this was very affirming. The olther thing we do is delay, so Peter “earns” the loop after he does something productive first. Many times, he forgets all about doing the loop after the distraction. But making a deal to earn the loop as a reward is often enough hope for his lower brain to help him move on. 🙂

  2. Maggie says:

    How can a parent decipher between OCD and looping? Is it essentially the same thing?

    • I-ASC says:

      Thanks for asking. This is a tricky distinction. A motor loop can become an OCD. OCD’s have a deep emotional component to them which leads to compulsion, making the repeated motor action something the individual feels a NEED to do, versus a myelinated motor pattern. OCD’s tend to be stronger and harder to work through than motor loops. Distinguishing between the two is not always necessary to trying to help the person work through it. We hope this helps!

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