Autism was first recognized as a disorder in the 1960s. Very little was understood about the condition at the time. Conventional thinking categorized it primarily as simply “bad behavior” that would yield to punitive interventions or in more extreme cases, to electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy).
Twenty years later, a shift toward behavioral therapy using positive reinforcement instead of punishment began to emerge. Fast-forward to today, and while a few places still use an admittedly less extreme version of shock therapy to treat autism (a treatment the United Nations has designated as torture), there are also many new therapies being introduced for children diagnosed with ASD. It’s clear, however, that the underlying assumption and approach with most current therapies is that autism is a brain-based behavioral, psychological, and cognitive disorder that should yield positive change through repetitive and insistent attempts to “correct” behavior.
One of the most prevalent but unrecognized elements in this approach to children on the spectrum is that their felt experience as well as their understanding of what is going on for them and the beliefs they form about themselves through the interventions, are mostly ignored and overlooked as being central to the child’s learning. At ABMNM, we believe that it’s absolutely vital to remember that no matter how the child on the spectrum presents themselves, they are having a felt experience 100% of the time. ASD kids have genuine and often higher-than-average intelligence. They feel a range of emotions as they work on gaining new skills and new ways of being, and they are particularly sensitive and averse to interventions that involve direct control.
In this article, we challenge current ASD treatment practices and introduce a novel way to understand autism while acknowledging the reality, and often the severity, of the limiting challenges that a child with ASD faces. And we offer a new approach that takes advantage of the intelligence of the child and awakens their brain to new possibilities in a way that enables them to acquire more and more agency and skill generated from within themselves. It’s an approach that helps the child realize their own potential, as they develop self-awareness and self-knowledge, and learn to better understand their environment.
ASD and Movement
Over 20 years ago, as more children on the spectrum were showing up in my practice, I began to recognize that the dramatic behavioral indicators of ASD were not where the underlying challenge was. Instead, I observed that the majority of my clients had serious movement issues. These motor issues were usually dismissed by others as “clumsiness” or “roughness” or simply ignored. As I focused on movement skills and helping my clients differentiate and integrate more complex and refined neural patterns and motor skills, many of their behavioral, cognitive, and psychological issues started to dissipate, and even disappear! As time passed, it became crystal clear to me that, long before the behavioral, cognitive, and psychological challenges manifest in a child with ASD, their ability to organize movement is disrupted in significant ways. Internally, I had labeled ASD as a “movement disorder” but was hesitant at first to speak openly about my emerging understanding since it was so far from what everyone else was thinking, believing, and doing.
That all changed when I met the brilliant researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Torres of Rutgers University. On our first walk together she emphatically stated that “everyone treats autism as a psychological disorder but it’s not – it’s a movement disorder!!!” (Anat and Elizabeth discuss the subjective experience of a child with ASD and what Anat refers to as the “One Brain Principle” in working with a child on the spectrum in this highly informative webinar hosted by the NJ Autism Center of Excellence.)
In 2020, the Simon’s Foundation Spark study, the largest ASD sample in the United States, showed that: “At least 86.9% of the children with ASD are at risk for Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) throughout childhood and adolescence, whereas only 15.1% of this sample held a dual diagnosis of DCD/motor delay. Children with ASD never outgrew their motor difficulties. Motor impairments are clearly under-recognized, under-diagnosed, and under-treated in children with ASD.” (Bhat, 2020)
Understanding the brain’s challenge with ASD
As I got deeper into my work with clients with ASD, I came to realize that the movement challenges they faced resulted from a neurological disorder in the fundamental, underlying brain process that is at the heart of all learning and skill formation. It became clear that I needed to focus on helping the brain do its job better so the client could grow and evolve. Then, as motor development occurred, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and ideational abilities would have the space to evolve as well.
To fully understand the challenge with ASD and how to address it, we need to understand a few basic things about the brain:
- The brain has a job to do like any system in our body, such as the heart and liver.
- The better the brain can do its job, the more we can successfully learn and overcome challenges.
- The job of the brain is to put order in disorder and to make sense out of nonsense.
- The brain is an information system rather than a mechanical system, and it’s governed by informational system principles. For example, when we try moving a heavy object, using more force typically leads to a better outcome (mechanical system). However, if we use force to get the brain to learn something new, this is likely to distort the learning process and create unnecessary limitations in the brain.
- For learning to occur the brain needs new information.
- The source of new information is the perception of differences in the flow of stimulation coming from the outside and inside. This is what is referred to in neuroscience as “signal to noise ratio.”
- When a difference in the flow of stimulation is not perceived, it does not exist, and the brain lacks information with which to learn.
- The chain of learning is: stimulation (perception of a difference) to evoking differentiation, creating new connections in the brain -à providing the opportunity and possibility for spontaneous integration, (i.e. learning).
ASD Visualization: The Blender
I had been trying to imagine and embody what a client with ASD might be experiencing and feeling, when one day, an image spontaneously popped into my head. I saw a very large blender (the size of an adult), filled with yogurt, blueberries, raspberries, and almonds that had been blended. Then, I was lifted and gently placed in the blender, my face covered with a mask and snorkel allowing me to breathe. There were people standing outside the blender, moving and talking. I put my hands on the glass in front of me and wiped the smoothie to the sides. For a few seconds, before the mixture slid back to place, I could see outside, but the image was blurry and unclear. I could hear the sounds of people trying to talk to me (it was very muffled and sounded like “wooow, wooow….”) so I couldn’t decipher what they were saying. They were reaching out to me, but all I could feel was the contact with the smoothie and confusion. *At this moment it dawned on me:
The brain of the child with ASD is challenged in its ability to perceive differences in the flow of stimulation coming in!!!!!
The “Noisy Brain”
As stated before, the brain is an information system, and it generates new information through the perception of differences in the flow of stimulation. If a difference is not perceived, it does not exist. For example, if you stand in a room filled with people speaking very loudly and I stand behind you and talk to you in a normal voice, you won’t hear me. My speaking will not exist for you, even though it will for me. This is very important to understand when working with a child with ASD. We tend to assume that they hear, see, smell, taste, and sense what we do and thus we expect them to figure things out and to make sense of something in the same way that we would. If they don’t, we tend to assume that multiple repetitions will “get through” to them. But this is rarely the experience for the child or their caregiver.
All babies are born with “noisy brains.” The brain has to progressively grow lots of connections, then organize and integrate them into functional neural networks. As this takes place, the brain gets less and less “noisy” as it organizes and makes sense of the flow of stimulation. During the past decade, researchers have theorized that certain areas in the brain of children with ASD remain “noisy” and this theory is now supported by a growing number of neuroscientists. The challenge for the child with ASD is in perceiving differences in the flow of information, thus interrupting the process of learning and the brain’s ability to organize and build itself.
A Fundamental Paradigm Shift in Understanding and Approach
Thousands of parents, therapists, and caregivers of children with ASD are continually frustrated by disappointing outcomes, oftentimes despite hours, months, and even years of committed and loving attempts to help the child overcome their challenges and limitations. A key finding in the Simon’s Foundation study is that: Children with ASD never outgrew their motor difficulties.
As mentioned earlier, attempts to help children with ASD usually involve trying to get the child to do what they can’t do, or to stop doing what they cannot stop. However, if they do not perceive differences in the flow of stimulation coming from you to them, they cannot make sense of what you are trying to teach, no matter how many times you try and how many hours you invest. Their brain is not generating the new information it needs – it essentially has nothing to work with. The net result is that the desired learning does not occur, and since we all learn from our actual experiences, the child ends up learning about their limitations more than anything else.
On the other hand, if we create conditions that potentiate the ASD brain’s ability to perceive differences, the brain will be able to put order in the disorder in the flow of raw stimulation being received. It will start to do its job, making sense out of “nonsense” so a child or adult with ASD can become brilliant at learning and changing for the better. This shift IS possible – it’s one that we witness time and time again with our clients – and it’s an outcome that’s within reach for anyone.
The Bad News
Focusing on desired outcomes usually presents limited or no results, or negative outcomes. Trying to get a child who is having a hard time speaking, reading, walking, riding a bike, or interacting with others to speak, read, walk, ride a bike, or interact with others by leaning on repetition leaves the child and their brain at a loss because it’s lacking the new information it needs to learn. This can create undue anxiety, agitation, and/or frustration for the child, and over time it can rob them of their own agency. They know that they are failing. If they could learn, they would. But they can’t, at least not in this way.
The Good News
“Waking up” the brain of the child with ASD, and potentiating it to perceive differences and generate new information, leads to potent learning and positive change. We have found that creating the necessary conditions for the ASD brain to learn requires two things: 1) a shift in approach from trying to fix the child to instead connecting with the child, and 2) the use of the 9 Essentials of NeuroMovement®, which are conditions that enhance the brain’s ability to perceive differences.
From Fixing to Connecting
Shifting from trying to “fix” a child with ASD by attempting to make them do what they can’t do to instead focusing on connection and understanding requires a fundamental emotional and cognitive change within us as adults. We need to become aware of when we move into “fixing mode” as that actually causes us to disconnect from the child and their experience. That does not mean to suggest that we are passive in relation to the child, or more likely to ignore dangers to them or others. What it means is that we need to be willing to change what we do with our child, and how we do it.
The “how” is the 9 Essentials of NeuroMovement® which focus on enhancing the brain’s ability to perceive differences. Utilizing the 9 Essentials requires us to shift our focus from what I call “content,” such as trying to get the child to learn a specific skill or reach a developmental milestone, to “approach” where we focus on improving the underlying functioning of the brain itself. For that we need to start where the child is presently at, so they can learn like typically developing children. An additional bonus is that, when engaging with the 9 Essentials, you and your child both learn new and wonderful ways to connect with each other..
As the famed neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich wrote about the 9 Essentials: “Scientists have defined the ‘rules’ governing brain plasticity. Anat Baniel, working in parallel along a completely different path, has defined almost exactly the same rules and interprets them in practical and understandable human terms as the 9 Essentials that should contribute richly to clinical intervention.”
Embodying the 9 Essentials in Daily Life
The 9 Essentials of NeuroMovement are a way of being and a way of doing. Each Essential is a way of action. They sound simple and may intuitively make sense to you. Or they may feel quite foreign to what you are used to thinking and believing. Adopting them and using them with your child requires that you use the Essentials within yourself. That takes intention, attention, and the desire to learn on your part.
We have taught over 1000 parents and caregivers how to use the 9 Essentials in daily life and many of them report immediate and significant changes in their child, in themselves, and in their relationships with their child/ren and spouses. You can learn more about the Essentials and read a case study in New Understanding and Hope for Children on the Autism Spectrum – a chapter co-written by Anat Baniel and Dr. Neil Sharp and featured in Autism Essentials (McCabe, 2020).