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Why Kids Slouch

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We can glean clues about a child’s brain organization by how he sits in a chair.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive.  That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”

Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.

How can that be?

Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes.  In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.

For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity.  So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).

This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing.  At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.

Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.

If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).

Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair.  He’s wired to do so.

But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son.  And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.

We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right?  Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.

So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.

Kids with Control Issues

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Kids reclaim their childhood when they no longer think they are in charge.

When we think about it, why would kids even want to be in control of everything? After all, the best part about being a kid is . . . adults make the decisions and assume overall responsibility for whatever happens.

Yet, I’ve met a lot of kids who think they are in charge of their life, their home—and even their parents—and they’ll work overtime proving that by trying to control every situation.

In my experience, this behavior came about for one or more of these reasons:

1) Kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain often experience a lot of failure when others are leading. That’s because those in control usually have no awareness of how to build into the structure (i.e. make subtle modifications) so that such kids can then easily comply and experience success.

So to avoid that dreaded sense of failure, some kids compensate by seizing control of the situation.  They’ll insist on doing it “their way.” But their way also works best for their brain, and now makes it impossible to fail by not doing a task as others expect.

2) Kids take control because others (inadvertently) reinforce this distorted sense of power by giving a lot of attention to the negative behavior. Here, the child’s brain may actually register holding the whole family hostage (by refusing to do whatever, and thereby delaying everyone) as giving him a distorted sense of importance. It’s even better if family members become upset. Now he’s even controlling how they act!  He’s center-stage as he proves that, again and again, he can turn a whole house upside down. And every time he’s allowed to do that, he further entrenches a brain map that reinforces he’s the boss.

3) Kids take control when they don’t trust those in charge to lead. If that’s so, then a key question to ponder is . .  . how did those kids lose that trust in the first place?

Some variables that affect trust are: 1) As parents, we second-guess many of our decision; 2) We’re inconsistent with how we respond; 3) We focus more on the negative, without honoring the present gifts our child has to share; 4) We don’t regularly build into the structure to make it easy to comply.

So how do we help kids relinquish their need to control?  We start by telling them that they are giving up the best part of childhood when they think they are the ones in charge. We point out how they’ve already lost so many years of their childhood by thinking they were the boss—and we don’t want them to lose any more. Bottom line: We don’t ever get to be a kid again.

In my experience, that kind of conversation really resonates with such kids. They’re not so keen on giving up childhood years that can never be regained.

However, that conversation won’t have any lasting effect if those in charge continue to do the reasons (above) that created this behavior in the first place.

So, instead of being resigned to thinking we have a “strong-willed” or “defiant” or “controlling” child, we can choose to view such kids as a mirror to what we’re not yet providing for them. We can pause and re-think what we may do differently that, in turn, will create a sense of security for our child.

Once that’s in place, I’ve yet to meet a child who did not willingly let go of the reins.

Holiday Tips for Special Needs Kids

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With a little behind-the-scenes planning, we can ensure everyone enjoys the holidays.

I recently read an article on this subject, and this was actually one of the suggestions:  Plan for your child’s inevitable melt-down.

Wow. Talk about a downer attitude.

Now I’m all for planning, but here’s what I propose: Plan to have . . .  a great time.

So, here are some suggestions to ensure a wonderful holiday.

1. Role play positive behavior for situations we anticipate may trigger a negative response.

For example, our child can practice simply saying, “No thank you,” if offered food he does not like.

2. Allow our child to wear something that doesn’t skyrocket her sensory issues.

Who cares if Aunt Sue (who we only see once a year) thinks our child’s outfit is inappropriate? Why add more sensory overload by requiring our daughter to wear a cute outfit (that feels horrible to her)?

3. Be prepared to respond to family members who criticize our child and our parenting.

A ready-to-go response for any criticism may be: I’m actually very thankful to have my child in my life. And then, we just smile and walk away.

4. Initiate escape breaks.

We take our child outside to “get something we forgot from the car” or to see (whatever) that’s in the backyard, and so on.  Little breaks from all the party noise prevent sensory overload and help keep our child calm.

5.  Have consistent expectations.

If we know our child is a picky eater–and we don’t require him to try new foods at our own dinner table—then we don’t suddenly demand our son branches out and try new foods (just because Granny made the dish).

6. Strategize where our child sits at the table.

Usually, sitting at an end is a lot better than being squished in the middle. (This spot also makes it easier to get up . . . see next suggestion.)  We also assess the chairs. Will our kids’ feet dangle? If so, we can put something under them. Is there a choice between a chair or a stool? If so, the former provides more support. Are some family members more tolerant than others? If so, that’s who sits closest to our child.

7. Strategize ways to avoid long periods of sitting at the table.

We may ask our child to get up and pass the rolls to family members or to go to the kitchen to get something we (intentionally) forgot to put on the table. Also, there’s no law that says kids have to sit through the entire meal. So why should we make them suffer through endless adult chatter that has no meaning to them?

8. Leave early.

We don’t wait until our child is tired and over-stimulated before we realize it’s time to go.  But not everyone has to leave while the party is still happening. We can take two cars, and already know which parent makes the early exit with our child (and in some cases, that parent may even welcome the chance to cut out early).

No, we can’t anticipate everything that might happen. But here’s a general guideline for any unexpected situation: We vow to keep the bigger picture in mind.

In other words, it’s not relevant whether extended family members “get” why we may be going outside for breaks or leaving early or doing whatever to ensure our child enjoys his time with the family.

We stay focused on doing holidays just like everything else—our actions are dictated by what’s in our child’s best interest. Period.

The irony is . . . such actions then also ensure those critical relatives enjoy the party, too. :-)

Why Kids Avoid Eye Contact

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We may not realize that incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to make and sustain eye contact.

Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.”  And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.

Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.

To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?

Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us.  In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.

Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?

Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.

Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.

But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)

The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.

No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.

At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.

And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face.  The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala.  Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”

But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).

So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.

We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.

In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.

Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Apps for Autism: Helpful or Not?

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Wonder if Steve Jobs knew the iPad would be a hot topic in the autism community.

Knowing that I work with lots of families with autism, many people were interested in what I thought about the recent 60 Minutes segment, “Apps for Autism.”

That’s because at Brain Highways, we experience again and again how nonverbal kids (including those with autism) do speak and communicate their ideas after they’ve integrated retained primitive reflexes and developed their lower centers of the brain.

How’s that possible? Well, since it takes way, way, more highways to speak than to walk, speech (which takes place in the cortex) is going to be a luxury and inaccessible until the cortex is no longer preoccupied with compensating for underdeveloped lower parts of the brain. However, once that development is complete, the cortex is now “available” and, therefore, can focus on developing speech.

But the 60 Minutes story wasn’t about nonverbal kids learning to speak. Rather, it highlighted how some kids with autism were now able to communicate their thoughts by using an app on an iPad. So people were curious about my reaction to this.

I think many were surprised by my answer.  I thought it was great.

Do I believe everyone would prefer if a child actually spoke his thoughts? Yes.  But not everyone knows about brain organization or is willing to do the work.

So if something, in this case the iPad, proves what we’ve always known at Brain Highways— then it’s a great plus for everyone who interacts with nonverbal kids.  Namely, just because a child cannot articulate his thoughts does not mean that he also doesn’t understand what’s being said. Yet, too often, that’s the assumption

In fact, that’s probably why the people in the segment seemed so surprised by what the kids were showing they knew once they began communicating via the iPad.

In short, I say anything that helps people get past a “disability” and makes it easy for them to see, for example, an incredible child who is full of all kinds of thoughts and ideas . . . then bring it on.

That also includes kids who are in programs organizing their brain. The apps for autism fall under what we call “building into the structure”—where we encourage parents to help kids compensate (in this case communicate their ideas) while they’re building highways.

The 60 Minutes segment also noted it was interesting that kids with autism were so attracted to the easy touch-and-swipe iPad screens. However, this too makes sense when we look at kids with underdeveloped brains.  In such case, there is often a huge disconnect between what they’re thinking they want to do and what their body then actually does.

Yet with the iPad, it’s practically effortless to do just that. So, it’s really not surprising that such kids like using it.

We see the same reaction with our non-electronic “brain toys” at our site.  With very little effort from these kids, such toys produce an immediate really cool visual and/or auditory effect.  So, just like the iPad, kids are very attracted to them.

There was something else to glean from the 60 Minutes segment.  Near the end, they showed a boy who did not seem very enthralled with the app.  The teacher kept trying to redirect him to use the iPad to communicate, but he clearly wasn’t interested—until by mistake, he touched something, and a lion appeared and growled. That seemed to catch his attention and amuse him.

So what to learn from that part of the segment? Well, before we get down to business . . . (in this case: “This is how you will use this app to communicate.”), we need to allow all kids some time to first explore and play with whatever’s new.  Not everything always has to be an instructional moment.

Bottom line: It’s positive when compensations make something easier for kids who are trying to function with a disorganized brain.  But I also want parents to know we can help kids beyond that. We can actually help kids organize their brain so there are now an endless number of possibilities available to them.

And within that same process, such kids will be able to share their thoughts and ideas . . .  even if an iPad or some other compensation is not around.

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