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Mar
01

Healing Our Children with Attentional, Emotional, and Learning Challenges

Author // Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP

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There is an epidemic in our society. More and more children are being assigned more and more labels. These labels include attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), receptive and/or expressive language disorders, learning disabilities that include visual and/or auditory processing disorders, and the autistic spectrum disorders like pervasive developmental delay (PDD), Aspergers Syndrome, and autism, to name only a few. What is happening to our children? What do these labels really mean?

While I was growing up, my brother was diagnosed at a major university center in California with autistim when he was two-and-a-half years old. He had fine motor and gross motor delays, made poor eye contact, cried a lot from frustration, and he didn’t speak words. When he finally started to talk around age four, he wasn’t as frustrated and he became more social and no longer fit the definition of autism. So, his diagnosis was changed to a speech and language disorder since his speech was so difficult to understand. He still became very frustrated when he tried to communicate. He had trouble expressing his ideas and getting others to understand his speech. Because he had a lot of temper tantrums during those early years and always seemed to be in constant motion, he was also given the label of minimal brain dysfunction (the word used in the 1960s for attention deficit disorder) and was placed on medication.


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When my brother started school, he struggled with reading and writing. He had a brilliant mind and could remember almost everything that was said to him, but he couldn’t write his ideas down on paper and he had difficulties with spelling and handwriting. Book reports and papers were hard to write, and he was labeled as being lazy by his teachers throughout grade school. It wasn’t until college that a professor realized how gifted he was, and how difficult it was for him to express his ideas in writing. He was re-evaluated at that same university center and now labeled as having a nonverbal learning disability.

All of these labels affected my brother’s self esteem. I think he saw himself as abnormal or not smart enough. As he grew older he seemed to lack the confidence to follow his dreams and the courage to risk failure because he felt he had failed so many times. Therefore, I have never believed in labels. Labels place children into boxes that they can’t escape from very easily. Labels seem so meaningless to me since a child like my brother could move from one box to another while the “experts” couldn’t seem to agree on what box to put him in.

During my fellowship training in behavioral and developmental pediatrics, I learned that 70% of children labeled with attention deficit disorder also have some form of auditory and or visual learning disability—but no one could explain why. Most of the therapies given to these children were what I called “sit down therapies.” Movement therapy, like occupational therapy, was seen as a way to get children from the door of the classroom to their chair. Once the child was seated, I was taught that the “brain” could be “educated” through speech therapy, practicing phonics, or drilling math concepts. These children were often placed in special education classes but I never saw these children get out of special education classes, and I watched while they academically fell further behind their peers, and their self-esteem suffered.

It was the birth of my son that really taught me to look more closely at what was beneath all of these labels. First of all, because my son never crept on his belly and had a persistent “stiff neck” after his C-section birth, other parents convinced me to take him to a gifted osteopathic physician for biodynamic cranial therapy. Next, it was my son’s Waldorf-trained preschool and kindergarten teachers who first taught me about the importance of movement in the development and healing of neurological pathways.

My son’s gifted kindergarten teacher worked with him after school for two hours, twice a week, for a year-and-a-half doing lots of harmonious, non-competitive, rhythmic movements. It was calming to be in her presence. She lived in the present moment. When she sliced apples for the children to make applesauce, the thoughts of her mind, feelings in her heart, and the actual movements of her body were all aligned with the task of slicing apples. In her speech and in all of her movements her mind, heart, and body were as one. My son went from grasping a crayon with his fist and scribbling at the age of four-and-a-half years to finger knitting and weaving during the next one-and-ahalf years. He went from being unable to catch even large balls easily to juggling tennis balls with her across the room. His balance, auditory processing, and speech articulation all dramatically improved. He became a social being who could relate and play imaginatively with his peers while his oversensitivity to touch seem to disappear.

I had to find out what his Waldorf preschool and kindergarten teachers knew about the relationship of movement to brain development. I had already completed four years of medical school, three years of pediatric residency, and three years of fellowship training in behavior and developmental pediatrics. I learned how to identify the various pathways of learning, whether auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, but I didn’t learn anything about sensory integration. After watching my son transform in his development, I completed the three-year Waldorf Teacher Training Program, and then spent another year studying sensory integration with Ingun Schneider, a physical therapist and sensory integration specialist at Rudolf Steiner College. I attended numerous workshops by neuropsychologists like Judith Bluestone of the HANDLE Institute and Carla Hanaford, who works with Brain Gym. What I have learned from all of these experiences is that movement forms the neurological pathways in the child that are later used for reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, focusing of attention, and creative thinking.

There is a relationship between the development of the vestibular system—which includes balance and muscle tone—and auditory processing—the ability to understand and follow verbal instructions. If a child, whose hearing is normal, still has difficulty with auditory processing (following verbal instructions) then strengthening his or her balance will help. If a child has low muscle tone with a tendency to drool and lisp during speech, then working with movement, specifically balance, will strengthen that child’s overall muscle tone and improve the articulation of consonants.

There is also a relationship between proprioception—the child’s ability to know where his or her body is in space—and the child’s ability to sit still and “pay attention.” A child has difficulty focusing his or her attention if the proprioceptive system is not yet fully formed or integrated. During the first seven years of life, the child’s mind needs to make a map of the location of pressure receptors within the muscles, tendons, and joints of the entire body. You might say that there is a universal law that the mind must know where the body is at all times. If the mind of the child can’t locate the different parts of the body when sitting still, then the child will need to actively move the muscles or sit on his or her feet in order for the mind to “feel” connected to the body while the child is looking at the blackboard and paying attention to the teacher. Unfortunately, a child who is continuing to wiggle in his or her chair while gazing at the teacher will often be seen as not paying attention and be labeled with attention deficit disorder.

In addition, this same child who hasn’t developed a sense of spatial awareness and doesn’t feel where his or her body is in space also lacks an inner sense of movement when looking at abstract forms like letters or numbers. The child’s eyes will follow the movement, the lines and curves of the letters and numbers, but the forms won’t imprint. The child will forget the shapes and not remember which way the number 2 or 3 goes or which letter is “b” and which is “d.” In addition to being labeled with ADD, these children with proprioceptive difficulties often get labeled as having visual processing and visual memory types of learning disabilities.