March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD), a global awareness day which has been officially observed by the United Nations since 2012. The date for this important event (3rd month, 21st day) has been selected to reflect the uniqueness of the triplication (trisomy) of the 21st chromosome which causes Down syndrome.
The theme for WDSD 2022 is – “what does inclusion mean for people with Down syndrome?” – the goal being to empower people around the world to advocate for full inclusion in society for people with Down syndrome. This is very important, because it was shocking to discover while researching for this article that in the USA until as recently as the early 1990s, the way people with Down syndrome were treated represents a shameful chapter of ignorance, inhumanity and discrimination. Many affected children were refused medical procedures they needed. Some were institutionalized, others denied the education that every child needs in order to have a chance at a successful and satisfying life.
Thankfully, perceptions have changed greatly in the past 20 years. Science has shown that children with Down syndrome are feeling, experiencing children who, given the right conditions, can learn and thrive. This is supported by my own work and that of my NeuroMovement® colleagues, which has revealed time and time again that the brain of a child with down syndrome is like any other brain – it is built to learn.
It was through my first experience of working with a child with Down syndrome that I learned that, no matter the child’s diagnosis or how dramatic their symptoms, they have a brain that is ready to learn as soon as we provide the necessary conditions for this learning to take place.
The human brain is built to grow, change, and organize itself. The brain brings order to our movements, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It makes sense out of the flood of stimulation that constantly comes to it from the inside and outside. And at no time does the brain grow faster than in infancy and childhood. It’s miraculous to watch how a child just a few months old is able to do things and understand the world around him/her in ways that were unthinkable earlier. You may be asking yourself: but what about the brain of the child with Down syndrome?
The Brain of a Child with Down syndrome
Every child with Down syndrome that I and my colleagues have worked with has, after going through the processes we take them through, showed themselves to be a delightful, alert, and capable learner. And they consistently showed remarkable improvement in their ability to move, think, and interact with others.
Yes, children with Down syndrome face motor and cognitive challenges but they are still fabulous learners. If we focus on specific desired outcomes for the child to be achieved at certain times, dictated by the expected “developmental stages,” then we are setting ourselves and these children up for failure. However, when we connect with the child and provide the right conditions, we can help them become more potent learners, both in terms of motor and cognitive performance, and in terms of accelerating their speed of learning.
Like every child, a child with Down syndrome needs to develop their motor, cognitive, and social skills over time. The process they need to go through is identical to the process every child needs to go through. It’s just that children with Down syndrome start the journey with a built-in challenge but that doesn’t change the fact that the brain of the child with Down syndrome can do the job that everyone’s brain needs to do: bring order into disorder and make sense out of nonsense. Our challenge is to help facilitate a child’s brain to do its job better. And this is completely within reach!
We all have six senses
The first five we are all familiar with, but it’s the sixth sense – the kinesthetic sense – which is the sense of movement. It is the sensory input that comes to the brain from our muscles, tendons, joints, internal organs, and pressure. It is the most fundamental sense we’re born with that provides the brain with the opportunity to organize and learn voluntary movement and associate it with all the other senses and to cognition. The kinesthetic sense, combined with neuroplasticity, is the foundation and primary focus of NeuroMovement®.
Using movement as a mechanism for learning
Movement is the language of the brain, and it’s through movement that the brain learns and forms itself. NeuroMovement® focuses on the brain’s remarkable ability for positive change and the brain’s ability to get better at changing and forming itself, i.e. learning to learn, through movement and the 9 Essentials.
The underlying neural processes of learning are identical for everyone when learning occurs:
DISCRIMINATION – noticing that we notice something. We perceive that something has occurred We may sense it, see it, hear it, smell it, taste it and/or feel it in our body through movement. For every newborn and baby, the primary source of those perceptions is movement.
DIFFERENTIATION – the perception of differences in the flow of stimulation coming in through the senses wakes up the brain to rapidly create a multitude of new neural connections.
INTEGRATION – these new connections are spontaneously integrated into new patterns and skills – i.e., learning.
Down syndrome can interrupt this process. But by creating conditions that enhance the child’s ability to perceive differences, these children become highly potent learners. The conditions we apply are the Nine Essentials of NeuroMovement®.
Moving from fixing to connecting
When interacting with a child (or adult) with Down syndrome, it’s important we relate to them as the intelligent, feeling, and experiencing being they are, despite the way they may present themselves. We need to know that they have the same needs, feelings, and potential to become ever better learners.
Creating the necessary conditions for a child’s brain to become a more potent learning “machine”
Anyone can learn how to use the 9 Essentials and apply them in ways that enhance and vitalize not only a child’s learning, but at the same time, wake up their own brains and vitalize their own learning and life.
What we have found through NeuroMovement® is that the very first thing to do with any child is to shift our own attitude from trying to fix the child to connecting with the child. This may sound easier in theory than in practice. One of the simplest yet most effective ways to immediately shift to connecting with a child is to become interested and curious as to what the child’s experience is. Consider how they are perceiving their world at that moment, and what kind of sense, if any, they are making of their own experience. At the same time, we need to detach from trying to get them to be, or do, anything in a prescribed specific way that we think would be better for them, (the exception to that is when there is a risk to them or others which requires that we take immediate action).
Each of the 9 Essentials, when applied, shifts us from the “fixing mode” to the “connecting mode.” NeuroMovement® and the 9 Essentials focus not on trying to make a child do what they can’t do, but instead on connecting with the child where they are. Starting from this point, we can employ the Essentials to bring about the perception of differences, so that their brain can start differentiating and subsequently integrating new possibilities in all aspects of their experience.
Following are three of the 9 Essentials. We encourage you to experiment with applying them in different daily situations, not just in formal learning contexts. You can apply the Essentials in any aspect of your child’s life. Often, it is easiest to focus on one Essential at a time for a few days, perhaps even a week, then shift to the next Essential.
The adult – you – interacting with any child, including a child with Down syndrome, needs to slow way down. Really slow down your speaking, your movements, and everything else so your child has a better chance of noticing what is going on. If we go fast, we can only do what we already know. When you go fast with your child, they can only do what they know, and often times what they know best are their failures. The Slow Essential calls on your own awareness of yourself, while you truly take interest in what your child is doing and experiencing. This creates safety for the child which by itself is a big enhancement to learning. Once you do that , the next Essential can be the perfect next step.
Variations, by their nature, are differences. When used in the context of going slow, the brain has a much better chance of actually perceiving those differences. Once that happens, the new connections occur and make it possible for the brain to learn.
Variations can also be thought of as “mistakes,” or playfulness. For many adults it is hard to shift from trying to force a child to do the “right” thing and to trust in the inherent intelligence in that little being that can be awakened. If you want a child to figure something out, present a task to them in different ways. Have them do it “wrong” on purpose. Notice if you feel anxious when you do that. Over time, as you experience how powerful intentional variations are, you will grow to love and enjoy taking the risk both in your own life and in your life with your child.
Essential: Movement With Attention to the Feeling of Self
The core, most fundamental Essential is movement, or action, with attention to the feeling of self. Without it, the brain is greatly diminished in getting the new information from which to create new connections and new learning. So often, when we attempt to get the child to understand something, or change what they do or how they do it, we focus on the “right” way and try to get them to “get it.” We then tend to overlook what the child’s felt experience is at that moment, which is of course incredibly important in terms of whether they will learn and what it is that they will learn. With this Essential we take it even further. We look to find ways to direct the child’s attention based on what and how they feel. Their growing ability to feel themselves as they perceive, move, and act, turns them into powerful learners that develop self agency from an early age.
When you are going slow and introducing variations, you can ask the child if they like or don’t like what’s going on. Do one thing and then the other without expressing a preference between the two, but rather get your child to express their feelings, experience, and preferences. You can incorporate this curiosity while getting the child dressed, or at mealtimes, or while watching TV, etc. Do this several times per day for just a few minutes and observe your child becoming a more potent learner, and your relationship with your child becoming more joyful and loving.
Testimonials from parents of children with Down syndrome.
Here are the stories of just two of the children with Down syndrome that have benefited from NeuroMovement® :
“Betty Ann is doing wonderfully well. Last time you saw her, I think she was three and beginning to walk with a sturdy gait. Now, she is jumping and she is beginning to run. She is growing so quickly, it’s amazing. She is still quite a peanut, but you know what it is when they start to look like little people. She goes to a regular nursery school, and the teachers are just so impressed with her. She knows the routines better than a lot of the children, and she is really keeping pace with all of the skills they are practicing. Her speech is coming along more quickly now as well. In short, we are really proud of her and are enjoying every minute of watching her grow. I can’t wait for her to work with you again.”
—Betty Ann’s Mother
“My son is 11 years old and he has Down syndrome, sensory processing disorder, verbal apraxia, hypotonia, dysarthria, and feeding difficulties. Overall, he is nonverbal.
He has been receiving Anat Baniel Method (ABM)®NeuroMovement lessons once a week. Before receiving ABM, he was not able to detect his need to empty his bladder and he was put on a schedule to go to the restroom. Now he is communicating his need to go to the restroom and initiating his trips to the restroom. Also, he significantly decreased the number of his accidents (once in two months, compared to several times a week). He has become more interactive with family members (he has begun to play with his little sister and “to visit” us in our bedroom to snuggle with us, etc.) He has expanded his range of communication with other people using his device and is experimenting with new sounds. He has been able to progress better with his feeding/chewing therapy and improving his tongue movement. His posture has improved as well, as a result of his legs narrowing from a wider base to a more typical base. His physical therapist also noticed that he has become more coordinated and improved his balance. He is also more active and curious about his environment and more engaged with other people during social contacts. Thank you so much for your help!!
Anat Baniel Method® NeuroMovement® is a revolutionary, scientifically-based Method that focuses on helping your child get a better, stronger brain. In our work, we have often seen the “impossible” become possible for children diagnosed with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. To find out more, go to https://www.anatbanielmethod.com/children/structural-genetic-birth-defects/genetic-disorders/.
Learn more about ways to participate in World Down Syndrome Day at https://www.worlddownsyndromeday.org/.