Mind Over Motor 

The body is fascinating in so many ways!  The way in which we move through space, accomplish our daily tasks and communicate with others is actually mind blowing, but we tend to take it for granted. Let’s stop and think for a moment about how we actually move our bodies. It is an extremely complex process and my hope is to break things down so that we can better understand the body’s amazing abilities. 

Our bodies are constantly moving. We walk, jump, talk, run, type, spell, and all the other million movements our bodies do each day. All of these movements require efficient motor skills and most of these movements we don’t even think about. However, those with sensory and motor differences, including autism, the simplest motor movements can be a challenge.  One metastudy that reviewed thirty seven studies on the prevalence of motor impairments among the ASD population, found that 51.8% of those on the spectrum show some difficulty with their motor abilities (Torres & Whyatt, 2017). So what does that mean? Well let’s start with a bit of the process of moving our bodies or praxis.

Praxis is defined as “the neurological process by which cognition directs motor action” (Ayres, 1985). But how does praxis happen? Praxis is a complex sequence of motor processes that are combined to make our movements efficient and smooth. The image below summarizes praxis.

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Mind over Motor Webinar, Dana Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

To put praxis or motor planning into action, here is an example. 

  1. We have to have an idea of what we want to do. Let’s say it’s going to the fridge to get a snack. 
  2. We then have to plan, sequence and organize our body to be able to get to the fridge. This requires body awareness, spatial understanding, executive functioning, balance coordination, and a lot more (see image below). 
  3. Next, we get to the movement part of the task. We have to initiate and execute the movement (getting off the couch), which requires more balance, coordination, muscle strength, sensory processing and more. 
  4. Then, once we get our bodies moving, we may have to make adjustments (there was an object in our path from the couch to the fridge that we weren’t expecting) and move our bodies to adjust to those changes. 
  5. Finally, once we make it to the fridge, we subconsciously reflect on the task and how successful (or unsuccessful) we were and we learn from that experience. This occurs over and over and over again all throughout life. 


In order for efficient praxis to occur the following building blocks are needed: 

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Mind over Motor Webinar, Dana Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

As you can see, there are many elements involved in something seemingly so simple like standing up from a chair. However, when we have a body that does not cooperate with our brain, we are less likely to develop the essential building blocks to praxis needed for efficient everyday movements. Unfortunately, our bodies get in the way and take a life of their own. 

So what causes the body to take on this life? Why can’t some of our spellers build the pathways efficiently? It has to do with what is called motor actions. These actions – automatic, purposeful, reflexive and impulsive play a role in how we learn new skills, how we respond to threats, and how we develop our gross and fine motor skills. Let’s take a deeper look at each one specifically and learn more about what area of the brain is used so that we can better understand how we can support our spellers to be more purposeful in their movements. 

The Four Types of Motor Actions 

1. Reflexive Actions – We are all born with reflexes that are in place for the purpose of survival and to protect us from harm. For example, babies are born with the “rooting reflex” which causes the baby to turn its head so that they are ready to nurse.  The sucking reflex supports feeding so that the baby is able to nurse or take a bottle. As we continue to develop and engage in more gross motor movements, we lose these reflexes. However, sometimes reflexes do not integrate and this can prevent efficient and purposeful gross motor movements. Reflexive movements originate in the subcortical area of our brain. This area is known as the control center to detect fear, controls emotions, arousal, and bodily functions, in addition to perceiving sensory information. 

2. Impulsive Actions – Impulsive actions are ones that we can’t control and are reactionary most often because of an unexpected event and intense emotion. They are also in place for our protection and survival. Most have heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is a very important protection when we need to get away from something that may hurt us, or if we can’t get away, we can fight back. When we are threatened in any way, our brain does not take the time to think through what we should do. Instead, we respond immediately, without thought. Unfortunately, this action can occur when we think we are being threatened, but we were wrong. For example, when a friend jumps out in front of you unexpectedly and we scream, or we may even “fight” back by accidentally hitting them. OUCH!! 

Just like reflexive actions, impulsive actions also originate from the subcortical area and occur without thinking. There are two things that trigger an impulsive response – emotion and incoming sensory information. It is important to remember that emotion means ANY emotion including happy, sad, excited, frustrated etc. Many neurodiverse individuals experience BOTH intense emotions AND anxiety so they are going to be much more susceptible to impulsive responses. It is important to always remember that impulsive movements are NOT intentional as they do not come from the cortical area of the brain (see diagram below). How do we support our spellers to be more purposeful? Read on!

3. Purposeful Actions – Purposeful movement is a result of practice, practice, practice! When we are learning any new motor skill – piano, guitar, basketball or riding a bike – we all know that the more we practice something, the better we are going to get at the skill. When we spend time practicing we are building the motor pathways from the brain to the muscles to help connect the brain and the body and as a result, praxis. Purposeful movements require the use of the cortical region of our brain as we have to think through each step for success. 

Many of us have heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect”, but I like the phrase coined by my colleague and friend, Shelley Carnes, OT, – “Practice makes permanent”. Practicing purposeful motor skills is essential to gaining more control over the body and these movements then become automatic. Finding an occupational therapist or someone well versed in purposeful movement and how to coach the body will help to build body control for more independence with tasks and activities. 

4. Automatic Actions – Movements become automatic with practice. Remember how you used to have to think about riding your bike or the first time that you drove a car? You couldn’t have any distractions and ALL your energy was put into thinking about all the things you had to do to be successful. Now, you don’t even have to think about how to ride a bike (unless you haven’t ridden in a very long time!) or how to drive your car. In fact, you can now drive with music blaring and you may even drive to a location and not remember driving there (oops!). We want many of our day to day activities to be more automatic. When we work with the neurodiverse population, more practice helps their purposeful movements become closer and closer to automatic and ultimately control over their bodies. 

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So now for the million dollar question. What can we do to support our spellers to use their cortical brains to develop purposeful movement, rather than living in their subcortical or limbic brain? The key is to always think about two things – purposeful motor and feeding the brain. 

First, purposeful motor. For those with motor differences such as apraxia, it is important to remember that it is not a cognitive issue, it is a motor issue. They understand what you are asking them to do, they just can’t get their bodies to do it. Motor coaching to support purposeful motor is essential to build those motor pathways. Read my previous blog For more information on purposeful motor and how to motor coach their bodies.

How do we feed the brain? Feeding the brain is providing cognitive information at the age appropriate level of the individual so that they have to “think” and use their cortical or “thinking” part of the brain. When people are stuck in the subcortical area, there isn’t any thinking going on. Instead, it is all reactive (remember reflexive and impulsive). Ways to activate and engage the cortical region include things like: 

  • Playing audiobooks
  • Reading aloud
  • Ted Talks
  • Crash Course YouTube videos
  • College and University online videos/lectures
  • TV – History Channel, National Geographic, etc.

Check out this list of free online learning opportunities to “feed the brain.”

Understanding the four types of motor actions is important when we are supporting our spellers and their bodies. To live in a body that is unreliable and reacts instead of purposefully moving through the motions can be extremely frustrating. However, with motor coaching and ensuring that you are “feeding their brain” we can begin to build those motor pathways to purposeful movement!

Written by Dana Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

Dana Johnson is an S2C Practitioner, Director of Invictus Academy and Interplay Therapy Center, living in Tampa Bay, Florida.



Ayres, A.J. (1985). Sensory integration and the child. Western Psychological Services.

Torres, E.B., & Whyatt, C. (2017). Autism: The movement-sensing perspective. CRC Press.

The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through trainingeducationadvocacy 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.

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