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.
Jon Bon Jovi has just opened a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey. But guess what? The premise of The JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant is also a great model for parents.
How’s that? To understand the connection, we first need to learn how The JBJ Soul Kitchen differs from a traditional soup kitchen.
First, the food is gourmet-quality. The JBJ Soul Kitchen’s menu includes savory dishes such as grilled salmon with seasonings, pork chops with fig and apple chutney, mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed greens, and homemade carrot cake. The menu in itself underscores an important premise of the restaurant: Just because someone is homeless or in a need of a meal doesn’t mean that he or she wouldn’t also enjoy delicious, healthy food.
Second, there are no prices on the menu. Instead, paying customers are encouraged to leave whatever they choose in envelopes left on the tables. Those without money can bus tables or wait on tables or work in the kitchen. They can even volunteer elsewhere and earn a certificate that’s good for a meal at the restaurant.
That’s because The JBJ Soul Kitchen is based on another general premise: Those on the receiving end are also held accountable for giving something back.
So Bon Jovi is meeting a community need (i.e. feeding hungry people,) but he’s doing so in a way that honors and respects such individuals’ dignity. He does that by giving people options as he also holds them accountable for contributing something to the community.
That’s a great outlook for parents, as well. We, too, can meet our kids needs in a way that doesn’t come across as pity or condescending or one-sided (where we do all the giving, and they do all the receiving). Like The JBJ Soul Kitchen, we can present our kids with options for ways to give back to our family. That way, we also create a sense of community in our own homes . . . where receiving and giving are then considered all part of the same circle.
Some kids express fears that prompt others to go, “Huh? You’re afraid of what???” That’s because whatever they fear—riding an elevator, going upstairs or to bed alone, being near a dog—is just no big deal to most other people.
So then, how do we end up with a distorted fear in the first place?
They usually originate as a result of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain. In such case, information is not always processed as others receive it. Not only can such kids register something ordinary as fearful, but such underdevelopment also makes it more likely they’ll then respond with a fight or flight reaction.
However, the fear persists for several other reasons.
For example, suppose a parent immediately comforts a child whenever she reacts to a distorted fear. That child’s brain now registers this response as validating her distorted sense of danger and reaction to it. From a child’s brain’s perspective, there’s now no difference in how a parent responds, for example, to an adverse reaction to clowns (which poses no true threat) than to rattlesnakes (which do represent danger).
It’s also possible that a parent’s subconscious is inadvertently keeping the fear alive. For example, a parent may feel needed whenever she comforts or rescues her child. In such case, the child will continue to assume the role of someone needing to be rescued.
Distorted fears may additionally persist when family members acquiesce and adjust their actions around the child’s fear. For example, parents may ensure that whatever the child is afraid of isn’t “out” when they visit friends and family. Or, at the airport, they’ll drag luggage up the escalator since elevators cause the child to have a meltdown.
However, now the child has zero motivation to overcome the fear. Not only does everyone dance around whatever frightens her, but her brain additionally registers a (distorted) sense of power over others and an (unrealistic) expectation that everyone will always be so accommodating.
Last, distorted fears persist when kids don’t trust the person in charge to lead. In other words, it should suffice for a parent to merely say, “You can trust me. It’s completely safe to (fill in the blank).”
Yet, if there’s an underlying distrust, all assurances in the world don’t seem to make a difference. That’s why separation anxiety is always a distorted fear. In other words, why would parents ever leave a child somewhere they didn’t believe was safe?
So, it’s important to ask: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do I want my child’s fear to be gone? Anything less than an immediate, forceful “10!” response ensures the fear remains and the process outlined in Part 2 will not be effective.
Occasionally, a child is so invested in keeping the distorted fear that he refuses to participate in the process to eradicate it. That’s good feedback that this child actually perceives it’s more beneficial to keep the fear than to lose it. So, here, the first step is to help the child shift that (in itself) distorted thinking to wanting the fear to go away.
How do we do that? Well, if our child, for example, won’t ride in an elevator, now he stays home any time we’re going somewhere that has an elevator. If our child is afraid of dogs, now he stays home any time dogs might even be in the vicinity of wherever we are going . . . and so on.
Note that we’re never angry or sad when we leave the child behind. Instead, we just calmly explain to our child that we (the family) are no longer willing to perpetuate a lie (there’s danger when there’s not). We’re also no longer willing to be hostage to distorted thinking by avoiding whatever he’s afraid of, and we’re no longer willing to have our time (wherever) delayed by a meltdown.
But most of all, we remind the child that he chose to not participate in a process to eliminate his fear. So, that means he’s also choosing a life where his fear will continue to affect him in undesirable ways . . .such as being apart from others and not going different places.
The good new is: The child is usually ready to begin the process after being left behind just one time.
However, there’s an important footnote to addressing distorted fears. Some kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain have what’s called gravitational insecurity. That means they actually do not feel connected to the earth.
In such case, fast movement, such as going on slides and swings at the park, is truly terrifying. (Imagine if we were asked to do that from a high tight-rope.)
So for such kids, fear of movement is real—not distorted—and, therefore, we do not address this with the steps presented in Part 2. This fear will only go away when the lower centers of the brain develop as intended.
Step 1. We talk about the fear when the child is not frightened.
Once in the fear mode, we don’t process information very well. That’s why we only talk about the fear whenever our child is feeling safe and unthreatened.
Step 2. We use humor to underscore there’s no real danger.
Suppose a child is afraid to walk upstairs alone. In such case, we might say: Every time family members walk upstairs, they get beamed up into outer space, right? No? Well, then every time family members walk upstairs, they go bald, right? No? Then what happens if you walk up the stairs alone?
Step 3. We put a positive spin on whatever the child fears.
For example, a child who is deathly afraid of skeletons now learns that her skeleton actually protects her jello-like brain from getting hurt! Who knew?
Step 4. Our child creates positive intention statements, expressing what he’ll do (differently) when faced with the fear.
Such statements are written and posted around the house, as well as said aloud. Some examples of positive intention statements are:
Note that positive intention statements are not one-size-fits-all, such as, “I’m not afraid of (fill in the blank).” Rather, they specifically spell out what the child will do differently (than prior times) when now facing the fear.
Step 5. We have dress rehearsals before implementing a new plan of action.
Suppose a child is afraid to go to sleep at night if the closet door is shut. In such case, the parents and child create the same bedtime scenario—but during the daytime—to practice what the child will now do differently at night.
So in broad daylight, the parent initially assumes the role of the child, and the child just watches “the show.” For example, one parent puts the child (the other parent) to bed and then shuts the closet door. The parent assuming the child role models how he’s cool with that . . . no yelling, no tears, nada.
Then it is the child’s turn.
Note that dress rehearsals may also include some fantasy. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, a sibling can be the “dog” during the dress rehearsal. That way, the brain has chances to become familiar with what it’s going to do . . . but without anything that actually triggers the fear.
Step 6. We include something in our new plan that physically helps with anxiety.
We may give our child something, such as a squishy ball to squeeze, when first overcoming/facing a fear.
Step 7. We get rid of the distorted fear in baby steps.
Suppose a child is afraid to ride in elevators. After rehearsing riding in an imaginary elevator at home, our first trip to a real elevator may be nothing more than watching other people get in and out of one. That’s it—and the child knows, up front, that’s the only expectation.
On the second trip, we may now add pushing the outside elevator button, but we still never get in.
On the third trip, we put one foot in the door—and then take it out, and that’s it.
On the fourth trip, we step in so that we’re completely inside the elevator, but then we get out before it leaves, and so on.
Note that we may be able to accomplish more than one or even all of the above steps during the same trip to an elevator (depends on how easily the child does each prior step).
For some situations, our baby steps may focus on increasing the proximity to whatever is feared. For example, if our child is afraid of dogs, we may just first watch a dog from our front window, while we stay inside our house. Next, we may watch a dog down the street, and so on, working our way up to standing next to a dog and eventually petting it.
Step 8. We provide on-going dialogue that reinforces we’re conquering our fear.
As our child completes each baby step, the brain registers: “Hey, I survived! Whatever I feared was going to happen, did not!” So, it’s important to point that out.
We also want to thank our child for trusting us and for showing the courage to do something that makes him uncomfortable (but is truly safe). Here, we’re shifting the focus from the original fear to a broader concept . . . one of creating brain maps that say, “I can do this.”
In contrast, when we keep our distorted fears, we reinforce brain maps that say, “Run! I can’t survive! I can’t trust anyone!”–even if that isn’t true. Throughout life, the former mindset is going to serve us much better than the latter.
Step 9. We stack the deck.
It never hurts to work behind the scenes to ensure things go smoothly. For example, we can keep our child up way past his bedtime on the night he’s going to stay in his bed all night. We can pick a store with the cutest clothes—that just happen to be on the second floor—when we’re going to ride the elevator. We can find a dog that has never barked once in its life when we’re going to pet it.
10. We repeat the positive experience in successive days.
This reinforces that new highways are strengthened and the old highway (i.e. the distorted fear) disappears.
Last, we want to celebrate in a way that appeals to our child—both during the process and when the fear is gone. We do so to honor the child’s willingness to conquer a fear and to rejoice that our child’s life will now move forward more smoothly—and with a lot more joy.
How many times have we been emotionally invested in an outcome, only to react with fear or anger or frustration when it didn’t turn out as we hoped?
Since we can’t control many of the outcomes in our lives, maybe it’s time to give up being so attached to them. In such case, we still note what we’d like to happen—but then, we let it go, choosing to view all outcomes as just opportunities to learn and grow.
And guess what? Turns our there are lots of perks when we chose to detach from an outcome. Here are just a few:
Seems like a pretty good deal for simply shifting how we think.
Yet letting go is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes to our kids.
For example, we’re often calm and collected when dealing with someone else’s child. But the minute our child does the very same thing, we morph into someone else. Why? Well, we’re very attached to our child’s future.
Yet there’s some irony here. The child we’re not nearly as invested in . . . gets the better side of us. Hmmm . . maybe that awareness alone can help us lighten up when interacting with our own kids.
We may also have trouble letting go if we think we’re owed an apology. Nothing like feeling we’ve been wronged to justify “holding on” to something.
Yet, again, what does that really get us? I’ve found this quote to be helpful in such situations: “Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.”
Last, I think it’s easier to be detached from an outcome if we remember that other people may also be involved in same situation. That means, by default, not everyone is going to get what he or she wants.
Carol Burnett underscored this kind of thinking when she first started her career. I recently watched an interview of her, and she was sharing how she never became upset or second-guessed her talent if she didn’t get a job after an audition. Instead, she just viewed the actor who got the role as . . . this time, it was the other person’s turn.
So, it comes down to this: Is it serving us (or our kids) well whenever we’re attached to an outcome? If the answer is no, then why not let it go and see what happens.
Since I’ve been doing that, I find that I’m traveling much lighter these days—and enjoying the journey so much more.
It’s always great to learn that more people are teaching others how retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers of the brain are linked to potential.
But I recently came across a site that made me cringe. Thrown in as part of a larger, more comprehensive program (which was the main focus of the site), the primitive reflex example activity was alarming—to say the least.
It was a short video that showed how to do one of this program’s primitive reflex activities. No problem with that. However, there was nothing about the example that was congruent with how primitive reflexes are actually integrated. Yet how would a parent know differently?
So here’s my concern with programs and individuals (e.g. I know a piano teacher who started having her students do primitive reflex movements) who add this component to what they already do.
We could have a child with retained primitive reflexes who, in good faith, follows whatever that program or person has instructed—regardless whether doing so actually integrates retained primitive reflexes.
However, if the child does not progress, the parents will likely conclude it’s either not possible to integrate primitive reflexes or their child is so underdeveloped that nothing ever works. Yet, both conclusions are flawed if the child was never doing the movements in a way that actually parallels natural brain organization.
But here’s what really breaks my heart. This very important puzzle piece for so many kids is now crossed off a list of possibilities to explore. In other words, the next time retained primitive reflexes are ever brought up, those parents are probably no longer receptive.
It’s also my experience that people and programs who throw in a “little primitive reflex work” often additionally omit the necessary creeping and crawling components that need to happen in conjunction with integrating primitive reflexes. Or, this latter component is also haphazardly thrown into the mix so that it, too, is not done in a way that yields maximum results.
At Brain Highways, it takes us two, comprehensive 8-week courses to teach what we find necessary for parents to learn in order to confidently and successfully facilitate their child’s primitive reflex integration and development of the lower centers of the brain.
This latest site (with the concerning video) was not the first time I’ve come across a program or someone claiming to integrate primitive reflexes and develop lower centers of the brain (i.e. the pons and midbrain) in a way that differs greatly from what I know to yield results.
Since we have 13 years of experience at Brain Highways and have now taught nearly 5,000 participants how to develop their lower centers of the brain with great success, I thought it might be helpful to parents to know what to look for when evaluating such programs or following other people’s lead.
Here’s some of what we’ve found must be addressed in order to ensure maximum results:
1. The patterning always reflects how babies naturally do the movement. For example, any program that suggests doing the reflex movements in a standing or sitting position has strayed greatly from how it’s done in natural brain organization.
2. Kids are never “taught” (via verbal directions) what to do since young babies do these movements innately—without any instruction.
3. Parents learn how to “physically pattern” their kids to do the specific movements, but just until the brain recalls what it’s already wired to do automatically.
4. Parents learn how and when to peel back their role so their kids ultimately do the reflex movements independently. If the program does not include how to move towards independent patterning, many kids will remain passive (requiring multiple people to always pattern them) and, again, participants will not be doing the movements independently as babies do in natural brain organization.
5. Parents also learn how to initially break down a reflexive movement if their child’s body goes rigid while patterning. This is important since the brain will just “shut down” if it’s overwhelmed and/or patterning is forced.
6. Since the hands also play an integral role in the movement, nothing is ever placed in the child’s hands while doing the patterns.
7. There is a natural sequence to introducing specific reflex movements (so be wary of approaches that require kids do everything all at once).
8. In order to yield maximum results in the least amount of time, most participants initially need specific feedback on how they’re patterning their kids In other words, just watching someone do the movement live or by video or reading explanations and viewing diagrams won’t suffice for most parents. In some cases, we’ve even seen dramatic detours from what was modeled. Without immediate feedback, those participants would have wasted a lot of time, or worse, may have never figured out that they weren’t doing the movements as intended.
9. The reflexive movements are done gracefully (not at rocket speed), and body parts are synchronized. Again, parents learn how to ensure this happens.
10. In regards to lower brain development, primitive reflex movements can be thought of as the input, whereas creeping and crawling can be thought of as the output. Therefore, if a program only includes primitive reflexes—without a creeping and crawling component—the child is only participating in some of the movements that develop the lower centers of the brain.
Creeping and Crawling
Here’s some of what we’ve found must be addressed in order to ensure maximum results:
1. Specific clothing attire and flooring makes it much easier to creep (the primary movement that develops the pons). In contrast, certain clothing and flooring hinders the process. Therefore, programs need to specify all of the above so that participants maximize their time on the floor.
2. As with the primitive reflexes, participants are also never taught how to creep or crawl. Doing so would engage the cortex in the process—and, therefore, not develop the pons or midbrain.
3. Since participants are no longer babies, they may inadvertently use their cortex and other parts of their body to compensate when trying to creep or crawl—but that (again) will not develop their pons or midbrain since babies would not have such options. So, programs and individuals need to address how participants may unknowingly compensate and how to ensure this does not happen.
4. Since the idea is to go back and finish what was not developed during the first year of life, there is a natural sequence as to when to introduce what movements. So be wary of programs that have kids both creep and crawl right when they start.
5. Initially, creeping must be done daily, rather than just a few times a week, as this ensures early pathways are solidified. So also be wary of programs that claim kids just need to creep 5 to 10 minutes a week.
Of course, there are other key components to include that ensure success, such as getting compliance (many kids with retained primitive reflexes are wired to go into a fight or flight response when they don’t want to do something). We also find it’s important to teach the kids why they’re doing this brain work, and we additionally know it’s more than possible to make this important work . . . lots of fun!
And . . . there is yet one more concern when programs or individuals only offer selected pieces of information about lower brain development. When the brain first starts to organize itself, some kids go through a brief regression period. So programs and individuals that do not address this or teach parents what to do if it happens do a great disservice to families. This is also why it’s never okay for kids to randomly do patterns or creep and crawl at school or at some other organization without parent knowledge or understanding of the whole process.
In short, messin’ with brain development—without fully understanding and implementing all its components—can be risky businesses. Worst case scenario, it might go as the saying suggests: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Best case scenario, results are limited and unpredictable.
But most importantly, both scenarios can be avoided since it’s possible to teach families everything they need to know.
Suppose we’re at a birthday party, and someone makes a negative remark about our child’s behavior. If we personalize the comment, we may do one of the following:
We make excuses.
You know, Sammy was up late last night. That’s why he’s out-of-sorts today.
You’re wrong. Sammy did not do (whatever the person said happened). You’re just always on his and my case.
We respond with sarcasm.
Like your child is perfect . . .
We blame others.
Well, Sammy was at his father’s all week—and he just lets him run wild.
Oh, boys will be boys.
We give a speech.
You have no idea what my life is like. I’m trying to juggle working full-time and meeting my kids’ needs. I’m doing the best I can . . . (and so on).
But, in truth, how many times does a defensive response improve the situation? In my life experience, I come up with zero. So, here are some alternate ways to respond when we think we’re being judged:
We might pause and ponder:
What does that comment reveal about the person who made it (rather than the one it was directed to)?
We might probe for more information.
“What was your intent in sharing that comment with me?” shifts the focus back on the person who made the comment.
We might respond with a ready-to-go phrase,
“Thanks for the feedback” acknowledges what was said, without specifically addressing its content.
We might respond with a ready-to-go one-word response.
“Ouch!” –said with a smile, shifts a negative tone to a more playful one.
Of course, being defensive often escalates into a battle of just proving who’s right and wrong. For example, suppose we think we arrive on time at our mother-in-law’s house for dinner. But she tells us that we are 30 minutes late, and now all the food is cold.
Yet, we’re sure she told us 6:30, not 6:00—heck, we can even dig up the email that proves our point. So we go back and forth, insisting we were told 6:30, while she remains adamant that she always said 6:00.
But in such case, does it really matter who is right? Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest just to move forward and enjoy the meal?
That means if told we’re late (even when we think we weren’t), we can also say, “Thanks for your patience. What can I do to help get the meal back on track?”
And who knows? If we model circumventing defensive arguments, our kids may also start to respond with grace and style when they think they’re being judged.
Seems like a great tool to have in a world that’s not always so kind.