Motor Learning Assumptions

| June 2012

These three assumptions provide the basis for understanding motor learning and practice in children with severe disabilities.

Motor Learning Assumption 1: Learning is one of the most significant ways that we know in which change can be induced in the CNS in response to the environment (which includes the therapist) or the actions of the individual. Strong support for this assumption may be found in the field of neural plasticity.

Motor Learning Assumption 2: The majority of children with severe, multiple disabilities have some capacity for learning, even though they are starting with a damaged system. Their rate of learning may be slow, they may require many repetitions to learn, and they may not generalize skills easily, but they are able to learn.

Motor Learning Assumption 3: There is a similarity between the processes involved when a non-disabled person learns a motor skill and when a child with a severe disability learns a simple motor skill. In other words, we assume that motor learning concepts and techniques developed with non-disabled subjects can be applied to our population as well, with appropriate modifications. There is currently a lack of clear research documentation of the similarities and differences in motor learning processes in disabled and non-disabled populations, which means that this assumption remains simply an assumption. However, there has been discussion of this point by several authors who feel that “motor learning” and “recovery of function” are similar in several respects, and that similar neural mechanisms may be involved (Schmidt, 1991; Shumway-Cook & Woollacott, 1995; Winstein, 1991b). Gentile (2000) suggests that therapists should use caution in applying principles derived from research with non-disabled subjects, and Winstein (1991b) suggests that these principles be used as guidelines rather than as exact recommendations in clinical practice. Further research is needed to clarify this point.


Gentile AM. Skill Acquisition: action, movement and neuromotor processes. In : Carr JH, Shepherd RB, eds. Movement Science: Foundations for Physical Therapy in Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Rockfville, MD: Aspen Publishers; 2000:111-187.

Schmidt RA. Motor learning principles for physical therapy. In: Foundations for Physical Therapy. Contemporary Management of Motor Control Problems, Proceedings of the II STEP Conference. Alexandria; VA: Foundations for Physical Therapy; 1991:49-63.

Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott M. Motor Control: Theory and Practical Applications. Philadelphia, PA Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1995.

Winstein CJ. Knowledge of reults and motor learning – implications for physical therapy. Phys Ther. 1991b;71:140-149.

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