Autism and Tying Shoes

Autism and tying shoes is in some ways really complicated. But after teaching Lucas to tie his shoes, and then many other clients who were struggling to tie their shoes, I have a system that works. Today, I’m going to review the best way to learn to tie shoes for children with autism.

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Autism and Tying Shoes

I have a client, we’ll call her Suzy, who was eight, or nine years old at the time. I had been consulting with her for four years. Before Suzy started school, I tried to convince her mother that we should teach her to tie shoes, knowing that if Suzy got to school without learning this skill, she probably would not pick it up easily.

So in second grade just as I had predicted, Suzy could still not tie shoes. Even though it had been a goal on her IEP for over a year with the occupational therapist working on the goal. I attended an OT session, and the teaching procedures to teach Suzy to tie her shoes weren’t working. I talked to the OT and tried to convince her to use my techniques, but she just wanted to keep doing it her own way.

So I talked to Suzy’s mom again, sent her a short video modeling clip, and encouraged her to use my procedures for just five minutes a day, and work with Suzy on her own. And within two weeks Suzy was tying her shoes.

How to Teach a Child to Tie Their Shoes

Now, for those of you that have been following me for a while, you might remember I did a blog way back in 2009 when I taught my son Lucas how to tie his shoes, and then went on to present this as a case study in front of B.F. Skinner’s daughter Julie Vargas at an ABA conference where Dr. Vargas was the discussant.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of success with teaching clients to tie their shoes. So today I want to go over the few steps for you to learn how to teach your child, or clients how to tie their shoes too. Whenever we want to increase or decrease a behavior we have to start with an assessment. And this doesn’t necessarily just mean tying laces. Can the child put their shoes on their feet? On the correct feet? Can they use velcro and do velcro straps? And finally, can they do any steps of the actual shoe tying procedure? This all has to do with their motor skills.

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Since everyone ties their shoes a little bit differently, it’s important that one person take the lead in teaching the child. This is usually mom, or a teacher, or an occupational therapist. If that person is left-handed though, and the child is right-handed, get a right-handed person to take the lead. Also, a factor is that this shoe-tying should really be practiced daily. So even a paraprofessional could take the lead with some oversight, and planning from the team.

Autism and Tying Shoes Tips

  • You want to get an adult shoe and then use two different colored laces. So whether you have a black lace, and a white lace, or in this case we have a red, and yellow lace. And we want to use two different colors because we’re going to give a lot of verbal cues such as cross red over yellow, and yellow into red. So we want to have the two different colored laces. I have found that to be incredibly helpful.
  • The shoe should not be placed on the child’s foot when they’re first learning, but instead be placed on the table, but the shoe has to be facing out. One of the problems with the OT that was trying to teach Suzy to tie shoes is she had this little foam shoe, which wasn’t stable on the table. And she actually had that foam facing the wrong direction. So the shoe should be placed on the table facing away from the child. As it would be if the shoe was on their own foot.
  • Then you want to write down the steps of your shoe tying procedure. And with each step, we want to limit it to five words or less. So my steps to teach Lucas, and my clients were something like cross red over yellow, yellow into red, pull strings tight, make a loop. At one point Lucas was making the loop too big, so we put masking tape on each one. And we would just do tape-to-tape and that helped provide the prompting he needed initially.
  • For professionals, and even some parents taking data on those steps, whether they’re independent at which steps, in which order might be helpful as well.
  • We want to not only have the shoe facing out but if you’re teaching the child you don’t want to be sitting on the opposite side of the table. Stand behind the child, or at least to the side. But if you’re going to give any kind of physical prompting, you really do want to stand behind the child and give gentle prompting.
  • You also can consider making a video model of the procedure and this is important because a lot of kids will see it on video, and actually pick it up better than even live. If you watch the video version of this blog on YouTube, you’ll see a narrated video model of the steps (just scroll up and click the YouTube thumbnail).

Step by Step

Teach the first step until it’s mastered, and then move on to the second step. And do the whole task at the same time. So for Lucas, we had to work on cross red over yellow for a whole session. Until we got him fluent with that, and then yellow into red. And we can just narrate the rest of the procedure if the child can’t do it.

We always want to start at the beginning, even if you’re working on step four. Make sure each step follows sequentially as it will come in the natural environment.


Once the child can tie shoes on the table, have the child practice with real shoes on their feet. Use the same colored laces on their feet. Or have the child tie a shoe while you hold it by their foot.

So different kids need different amounts of generalization practice and different steps to get them actually on their feet. And once the child does master it on their feet, let them tie their shoes. Even if it’s not perfect. Even if it’s not as tight as you would do it. The child still needs practice, and we need to let the child tie their shoes every day. Don’t do it for them, or they can lose the skill. Then they’ll need to learn to tie shoes from the start again.

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In summary, many people feel overwhelmed by the thought of teaching shoe tying. Don’t just stick with Velcro sneakers, even for kids who are a lot higher functioning than Lucas, or Suzy are. In just five minutes a day, with these procedures, you can see success and get your child or client to tie shoes.

To get you started turning things around for any child with autism, download my free three-step guide, which covers three steps you can take today to help your child or clients with autism. Whether you’re a novice parent or a seasoned autism professional I know you’ll find this guide on autism and tying shoes helpful.

Leave me a comment, subscribe to my channel, and share this to help others. And I’ll see you here next week.

Ready to learn more and turn things around for your child or client with autism? Sign up for my free 3-step guide!