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A 4-Year-Old Proves the Brain Can Change

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As the brain “wakes up,” it becomes easy to do what seemed impossible in the past.

Jin Xiong is our guest blogger. She is presently participating in the Brain Highways program with her son and husband.

When we started the Brain Highways pons course for our 4-year-old son, we already had completed 2.5 years of all kinds of therapies, as well as received many diagnoses: Autism, Oral Apraxia, Limb Dyspraxia, Global Development Delay (the list goes on).

Needless to say, when we came to Brain Highway for the initial assessment, we didn’t really believe it could help. We thought: Sure, this might be a program that works for everyone else, but not our son. Yet, we still decided to enroll.

We definitely struggled the first week. However, by week 2, we started to see changes! For example, I took my son to a playground with stairs. When he was done fidgeting with chains on the lower half of the playground, he decided to go to the higher part.

But for the first time ever, he just walked on the stairs, without holding anything, alternating his steps, walking straight up all nine stairs!  I couldn’t believe what I just saw!

Walking up stairs—and with zero assistance—was HUGE for him. During our two years of physical therapy, they always told us that our son had low tone and that he needed to be stronger to do such things on his own. But right there–he did it!  He actually did it without even looking.  He appeared so natural walking up the stairs, just like everybody else!

And then his occupational therapist started to see changes in him. Suddenly, he had a better arousal level. He was no longer lying on the floor for the whole session, waiting for someone to rock him or swing him. He was now showing initiative by going over to equipment that he preferred.

Next, we noticed he had a better attention span, staying with in an activity for a much longer period of time. For example, previously he’d do two rounds of Ring around the Rosie—and then just walk away. But now, he was doing five or six repetitions, and all with a great smile.

Overall, our son seems so much more aware about his environment. He now pays attention when people walk by. He will turn to you when you call him. He just seems to be more organized and just seems to have extra energy that then makes it easier for him to pay attention to the world.

His scribble pattern has started to change, as well. Initially, he would just hold a piece of chalk and do a few scribbles, all while looking elsewhere. But now, he’s starting to make vertical lines—and lots of them, as well as arcs, all starting from the same point. Then one day we noticed three circles on the board!  And while he’s creating, he’s now completely focused on what he is doing.

And today, Week 5 of the pons course, he tried to put on his Crocs sandals. I noticed he lined up the shoes wrong—the left shoe was in front of the right foot and vice-versa. But before I could correct that, I was distracted by something else.

Yet, when I eventually turned to help him, I saw him rearranging the shoes so that they were now in front of the correct foot—and then I watched him carefully put his foot in each shoe!

I was very excited! We had never really even taught him how to do that!  While this may not seem like a big deal to many people, it shows that my son does have the ability to differentiate position and do a sequential action.

Best of all, I realize that this is all just the beginning of so many more wonderful changes that will continue to happen. Since we’ve begun Brain Highways, my son has a whole new way of looking at the world, so I’m eager to see what’s going to change next!

And, I’m very grateful  . . .  that through my son, I now know that the brain truly can change, once given a chance to do so.

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Update on Nathan (from Jin)

After Nathan finished the pons and midbrain classes, he clocked another 50 hours of floor time. So, altogether, Nathan has now done 125 hours of brain organization work (We plan to resume floor time now that my baby is a little bigger.) 

When I originally shared the changes Nathan experienced while in the pons course, he had only completed16 hours of floor time at that time. As his brain keeps developing, we continue to see more and more changes.

Nathan’s teacher definitely saw him change throughout the year.  For example, his teacher said that his processing time (to respond) became much shorter. It used to seem like he couldn’t even   hear someone talking to him, or he’d take really long time to respond. But now, even if you call to Nathan from a distance, he will immediately start looking at you.

We also notice that when we’re at the zoo or near a lake, if we say, “Look, there’s a duck,” he now actually stops whatever he is doing at that moment and looks around. That never happened before.

About half-way through the midbrain class, Nathan finally understood the concept of throwing, and he can now throw overhead, using one arm or both arms. That had been delayed for years!

He also runs much better now. It used to be more like a fast walk, but now it’s a real running pattern.

Even walking seems to be easier. He can go a longer distance, walking with us with a good energy level from beginning to end, with no whining, no wanting to be carried, and no more needing reinforcers. And he asks to go for a walk every day.

Climbing has become easier, and the monkey bars now make sense to him.

He now also gets the idea of steering a tricycle or bike — left hand pull, right hand push, turn left and more. And he’s even able to turn while he keeps peddling. These may be lots of things others take for granted as being easy, but this all used to be impossible or so hard for him.

Just recently, Nathan put the body parts of a potato head into each correct spot—something that his teachers and ABA therapists had tried to teach him for years. I think he now has a better understanding of objects’ relative spatial position.

We’re looking forward to Nathan continuing to develop his lower centers of the brain so that he can just keep experiencing life in many more ways!

Here’s Nathan riding his bike for the first time in public:

Bypassing Dreaded Experiences

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Do you dread going certain places with your child? If so, why not try something different . . . ?

At Brain Highways, we encourage parents to “anticipate, pre-empt, and enjoy” when it comes to their kids.

In other words, Brain Highways parents no longer blindly throw their kids into situations that they predict are going to end up disastrous. Instead, they’re now proactive by first anticipating how they think their child might act and then by doing something ahead of time that circumvents that situation from ever going “south.” In short, after anticipating and pre-empting, everyone can now enjoy . . . whatever.

It turns out that role-playing is an effective “pre-emptive” tool, especially if the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Why’s that?

Well, if the pons is underdeveloped, we’re still wired to go into a fight-or-flight response whenever the brain perceives a threat.  But here’s the problem. The brain is not very adept at discerning what’s real and what’s not. So, someone with an underdeveloped pons may interpret anything new as threatening, which then triggers that fight-or-flight response.

And that’s where role-play can really help. Time and time again, Brain Highways families experience the value and importance of role-playing specific situations before they actually happen.

Why is this so effective?  Well, this is where the brain’s inability to differentiate between what’s real and not works in our favor. The mere act of role-playing lays down neural networks. So later, when the actual situation happens, the brain already has some familiarity with it—which then greatly decreases that fight-or-flight trigger from something new and unknown.

Recently, JetBlue Airways offered parents and their children with autism an opportunity to participate in an event that could be considered one step beyond general role-playing.  They set up practice runs where these families actually went through the entire airline process—including boarding the plane and being taxied around the tarmac for 20 minutes before returning. Amazing!

However, not all of the families capitalized on this experience as much as they might have.  For example, one parent was quoted as saying, “”I’m really glad we had this experience because I know he’s not quite ready for the real thing yet.”

Yet, a Brain Highways perspective would not have automatically jumped to that conclusion. Rather, we would ponder what else we might practice to “prepare” the child, especially since the experience now gave us specific information in terms of what to anticipate.  Or some parents said that the fellow passengers and workers were too nice—that these people are often not so supportive during real travel. Then why not include those variables during this hands-on role-playing?

The parents could have additionally role-played many times (at home) a simulation of what was going to happen once at the airport, which then would have increased the chances of the practice run going even more smoothly for the child.

Of course, there are never guarantees when it comes to kids—and that is true for all kids, not just those with autism.  And yes, plane rides are especially challenging because once in the air, there really is no way to just leave.

But here, too, we can anticipate what we may not be able to control and, therefore, still have a ready-to-go plan.  For example, I used to travel on business flights with my eldest when she was a baby, when I’d have to fly somewhere for the day to do a presentation. As part of those contracts, whoever was hiring me would agree that I could bring my baby, as well as someone else to watch her while I was actually at the conference or workshop.  That way, I wouldn’t be gone from my daughter for the entire day and evening.

Well, I gotta tell you. Stink-eye takes on a whole new meaning when you enter a passenger cabin with a small baby, and it’s filled with business professionals who are intending to work during the entire flight.

Since I fully anticipated that reaction, what did I do?  Well, I was proactive. As soon as I was seated, I’d turn to everyone in my vicinity and share that I, too, really hoped my baby was going to be quiet the entire flight—and that’s how she usually was. But if she did start to cry, I’d be more than happy to buy anyone around me a drink to offset that stress.

And then I’d get smiles instead of stink-eyes.

So no, we don’t have to enter situations with dread and conviction that it’s going to be awful, no matter what.  Rather, we can use our cortex to “see the bigger picture” and then plan accordingly.

And just having that kind of mindset already increases the odds that we do circumvent what we would have otherwise dreaded.  That’s because a positive perspective gives a very different subconscious message than one that expects the worst.

Actually, that statement might be worth reading twice  . . . since it applies to so, so many areas of our life.

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