You give your child seemingly simple instructions, then check back to find that he’s done something else entirely, or done only part of what you’ve asked. Is he deliberately defying you, or is this a sign of poor motor-planning abilities? Even a request like “Go downstairs to the kitchen, get me a roll of paper towels from under the sink, and bring it back up to me” can be too complex for a child for whom just getting down the stairs is a pretty complicated task. If you’re not sure whether your child’s disobedience is willful or motor-planning related, ask yourself these questions:
Does he seem to want to cooperate?
Does he respond to one step commands?
Does talking help?
Do pictures help?
Is the request unreasonable?
The child who is ignoring you or deliberately disobeying will probably serve up a little attitude along with the lack of action. If your child is really unable to sequence the steps you’ve requested due to sensory integration problems, he may seem confused, frustrated, or genuinely surprised that he hasn’t pleased you.
Ask your child with sensory integration disorder to do a truly simple command, one with just one step that’s completely within her abilities. Most likely, she will do it happily. If you see an escalation in “disobedience” as the request becomes more complex, that’s a good sign that it’s sensory integration-motivated, not deliberate.
Multi-step commands can confound children with sensory integration disorder. In addition to the motor-planning challenge, they may get distracted by a noise and forget the instructions, get stuck on one part and endlessly repeat it, or perform some ritual to stay alert and lose track of where they were. If you must give a multi-step command, give it one step at a time.
Try to talk your child through the task. If the behavior is due to motor-planning weakness, this may help your child do what you want and do it cheerfully. If the behavior is due to bad attitude, you’ll just be accused of nagging.
Illustrations showing each step of an activity that your child can refer to when needed may help your child with motor-planning problems get with the program and stay with it. She may be enthusiastic about the way these pictures help her do things by herself, like a big kid. On the other hand, if your child is disobeying for other reasons, she may find a picture plan to be unbearably babyish.
Think hard about your child’s particular sensory profile, muscle tone, motor-planning abilities, and coordination. Then look again at what you’ve asked your child to do. Does your request require holding something while going down stairs? Using an appropriate degree of force to open or move an object? Finding something in a cluttered environment? Hearing a buzzer or bell? Manipulating items like bed-sheets or shoelaces in a specific and organized way?
Although your request may have seemed reasonable when you made it, there may be something about it, even one small step or part of a step, that is not within your child’s ability. If you’re sure it’s neither impossible nor too complex a request, then you can assume disobedience. (But be very sure.)