I still don’t know how to tie my shoelaces.

What sorcery is this? [Image: a diagram of a shoelace knot. The left lace is light yellow and the right is light green. Via Wikimedia Commons.]
I’ve tied probably thousands of shoelaces in my lifetime. I’ve tied some pairs of those shoelaces thousands of times.  But it wasn’t until a recent conversation with The Husband that I realized I don’t know how to tie them.

The discussion was about my crippling lack of confidence.  The Husband was reassuring me that I did in fact know how to do something, and the analogy he used was to approach the “with the same confidence you use when you tie your shoes.”

I had to stop him.  “Do you feel confident that you know how to tie your shoes?  When you sit down to tie them, you just know you can do it?  How?”

This question baffled him just as much as his assertion about confidently tying my shoes had baffled me.  Of course he knew how to tie his shoes.  He’d been tying his shoes for years.  Muscle memory took over, usually; he hadn’t really had to think about tying his shoes since he was a kid, over thirty years ago.

Shoelaces do not work this way for me.

Whenever I sit down, pull my shoes on, and take the ends of the laces into my hands, there is an estimated 30 to 40 percent chance that my hands will have no idea what to do with them.  My hands won’t even realize that what they’re holding are shoelaces or that they’re expected to do anything with what they’re holding.  They’re content simply to hold onto these thin, wiggly, slightly rough-textured things with the hard smooth shiny ends.  The concepts “shoelaces, tie” become utterly foreign to my hands.  It’s like my hands have never held a shoelace before.

I really love aglets. [Image: The aglet ends of three brown, woven shoelaces, laid horizontally with the shoelace extending beyond the left edge of the frame and the aglet ends on the right. The aglets, top to bottom, are a rose metal with two holes punched to hold the aglet to the lace; clear plastic; and a yellow metal with a seam. Via Wikimedia Commons.]
My brain never knows quite what to do in this situation, because my hands won’t listen to it.  My brain can sit there recalling every instance of shoelaces it has ever seen.  It can catalogue every time we have successfully tied shoelaces in the past – including every time we have successfully tied this pair of shoelaces!  It can recall every word of the “how to tie your shoes” children’s record we listened to in kindergarten (“rabbit runs around the tree….”), the slipperiness and crisp smell of the card with the two red shoes printed on it, and the colors of the shoelaces woven through the card for practice (right blue, left pink).

My hands are oblivious to the whole thing.  It never occurs to my hands that there is a connection between the shoelace-related knowledge in my head and the practical movements of tying a shoelace knot.  My brain understands shoelaces, but my hands have no idea how to tie one. On these days, I usually end up wearing a different pair of shoes.

This state of events hasn’t changed much as I’ve gotten older.  Unlike my peers, I couldn’t tie shoes at all until I was in second grade, and I scrupulously avoided wearing shoes that tied at all until middle school, when I could no longer endure the bullying about my canvas slip-on “retard shoes.”  (That those same shoes have been so successfully marketed by Toms that now all the cool kids wear them makes my 10-year-old self want to spit.)  Even when I made the switch to shoes with laces, I deliberately bought them two sizes too large, so I could slip them on and off with the laces tied.  When asked about this, I invoked Pippi Longstocking: “Papa always said to leave room for your toes to wiggle.”

I wore tied sneakers on and off for the next twelve or thirteen years, but when I went to law school, I bought a pair of Skechers with elastic in place of the laces, and I loved them.  Three years later, I replaced them with a pair of zip-up Naturalizers given to me by a former roommate, which I wore until the soles actually wore through.  I still wear them for dance practice, since the sole over the arch is now so thin I can point my toes properly in them, but for outdoors I’ve replaced them with a pair from L.L. Bean that have tiny bungee cords.  Today, except for my hiking boots and my figure skates, none of my footwear has laces.

[Image: a white figure skate boot with blade covered in snow.]
[Image: a white figure skate boot with blade covered in snow.]
Oddly, this hit-or-miss shoelace-tying has never once struck while tying my skates.  I can only speculate as to why.  For one thing, lacing skates is a process; snugging them properly across the toe box, instep, and ankle requires attention both to the action of the hands and the sensations in the foot.  By the time the hooks are laced, about the only thing one can do is to tie them or the whole thing falls apart.  (I made sure my current boots, a pair of Riedell 975s, had a roll bar, which helps immensely.)

Also, figure skate boots aren’t shoes.  They don’t fit like shoes; they fit much more closely, with room for the toes to lie flat but only just.  They provide considerably more compression and support than shoes, and they’re much easier to feel on the foot, especially since I’m one of those figure skaters who skates in bare feet.  The pressure of the boot helps me focus and stay grounded on the ice; perhaps it does off the ice as well.

Finally, tying my skate laces is contextually consistent.  It’s the same set of motions (like most skaters, I always start with the same boot), and it’s always performed in functionally the same sensory environment.  No matter where they are, ice rinks always have the same set of smells (rubber, disinfectant, cold, the ice make), the same weird lighting (part halogen, part fluorescent), and the same basic sights (mats, benches, boards, paint).  By contrast, I’ve been called upon to tie street shoes in almost every land-based environment imaginable.  No wonder I can’t remember how.

It’s Not Just Shoelaces, Either

Actually, there are very few basic tasks that, at some irregularly-occurring interval, I have been utterly stymied as to how to do, no matter how long I’ve actually been doing them.  Bafflement of shoelaces at 30-40 percent of the time, happens more frequently than most.  I’d put bafflement of turning on the shower at 25 percent of attempts (same shower every time), but bafflement of typing at just 2 percent – lower even than being unable to handwrite my own name, which happens an astonishing 20 percent of the time.  (Yes, that’s one in every five tries.)

I think a lot of new parents of autists get scared in part by grim predictions of the “basic tasks” their kids will never do.  If your doctors and therapists are telling you that your kid will never tie their own shoes, handwrite their own name, or figure out how to turn on the shower, that’s scary.  If it’s any consolation, I fail to handwrite my own name correctly one in every five tries, but I have a doctorate.  The “spiky skills profile” is a very real thing.


5 thoughts on “Shoelaces

  1. I can get shoelaces, but my signature is similarly difficult for me. I find that I struggle with a number of basic processes, like washing dishes (even though I’ve been doing it for 20 years). Moreover, the longer it’s been since I’ve done a thing, the more likely I am to blank and be unable to figure out how on earth it’s done, even though I know I’ve done it before and I can remember doing it. I’ve gotten better at walking myself through recall and proceeding anyway over the years, but knowing that whatever I am doing could be knowledge lost if my schedule or environment changes is just something I live with.

    By the way, I found your blog through a friend. I’m going in to see about a diagnosis for autism in two days, so your blog has really hit home for me. Thank you.


  2. You’re welcome.

    I’ve gotten better at recall and proceeding too, but I also live with the fact that, sometimes, I’m just not crossing the space between “brain knows how to do the thing” and “hands/body have no idea how to do the thing.” I don’t even get that anxious anymore, unless I’m being watched or evaluated on my ability to do the thing. It just…happens.

    Best of luck with your diagnosis process!


  3. This was really fascinating for me to read, because it’s so utterly different from my own experiences. The only thing I can think to even liken to it is when I occasionally have to repeat a word in my head over and over again until I forget what it actually means.

    But anyway, I just wanted to thank you for writing this. It was a really interesting piece. (Sorry I don’t have anything useful to say though.)


  4. This is pretty amazing. When my son went to write his name to sign his license, I had to write it down so he could copy…he had no “motor memory” from what I read after years and years trying to figure it out–and that made sense to me.

    I’m reading this post, and telling him just a little, how you forget how to tie your shoes…he was a late shoe tier, and he says, “No muscle memory…” just out of the blue. I don’t think I’d ever brought up what I had learned. It is really ~much more common~ that I ever realized.

    I have a good friend who is a masterful artist. He told me once he was like a savant who couldn’t tie his shoes…and today I read about a dyslexic artist here in town who failed at school and life until he became a magnificent sculptor. He is world renowned.

    Go figure…it’s like a per-requisite of genius.


  5. Also late shoe tier kid; I never figured out how to do that “rabbit runs around the tree” bullshit, and instead just went with bunny-ears style tying–I have managed to make it very automatic, but mostly because I played sports a lot, so I needed to be able to re-tie my shoes on the go really frequently. But I do have the signature problem. And typing remains an issue–I’m not suuuuper slow, but I’m really inaccurate a lot of the time. I’m constantly making mistakes I have to go back and correct. My handwriting in general is actually just still heinous though. It also changes drastically from moment to moment.

    I feel like my biggest issue, besides just the general failure to routinize things, is my motor/cognitive sequencing. I just hate sequences. Part of what always fucked me over with the shoe-tying thing is that there’s all these discrete little fucking steps of wrapping strings around other strings, with your hands doing different things. It’s much easier for me to bunny-ears-tie shoes because my hands do the same thing at the same time (make a bunny ear with each lace, tie a knot out of the bunny ears), and it’s all done in like two steps.


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