Part One of a Three Part Series
Read Part Two, Prematurity, Caesarean Delivery and Sensory Integration, Here
There is a stunning juxtaposition occurring in the world right now that catalyzes me into action. It is the simultaneous occurrence of an increased scientific awareness of the neurobiological importance of early life and the escalation of violence against children. Indeed this violence attempts to completely eradicate childhood. The future of humanity rides on how adults respond. I am intent on education that will create a movement of enlightened advocacy for all children that is based on the model I have developed for children with so-called “special needs.” This model is presented in my book New Frontiers in Sensory Integration (New Forums Press, 2014).
Children are now more frequently labeled with conditions that broadly fall under the rubric of neurodiversity. This includes the autism spectrum, developmental disorders, behavioral and attachment struggles, sensory processing difficulties and learning challenges. Causative conditions are so various as to be impossible to simplify but they are certainly from both genetic and epigenetic sources. Attention has been focused on naming these conditions and identifying corrective resources to shift what is thought of as “wrong.”
In this series I will make recommendations to demonstrate how we can instead listen to children and youth, advocate for them effectively and organize ourselves differently so that we can be of service to them. I would like to extend these recommendations to all children on the premise that what “special needs” children are showing us is what all children need. This first article reveals how understanding a child’s earliest experiences can shift the balance in her nervous system. This will be followed by a de-briefing of the gift of attunement and parental witnessing that allows us to see through the labels that are being offered, frequently faddishly, to define our children. The culminating article is a detailed vision of the enlightened advocacy that I passionately believe is our responsibility today.
Many families have experienced a complete derailment of their orientation because of a diagnosis of any of the many types of neurodiversity such as Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Dyslexia, PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), Autism or a learning problem. Most families do not have the enormous financial resources needed to employ special therapies. Neither will most be able to fully grasp the complex lingo or the time to investigate the research behind the labels pinned to their child. This makes it seem overwhelming to advocate effectively at the outset. Nevertheless the truth is that even without this background parents are in the best position to truly know their children. They are also in the best position to really make a difference through deepening the way they know their child and creating a supportive, even a transformative, environment at home that is likely to uplift the entire family.
What I am suggesting is that parents in this situation are in truth models of the level of advocacy that is generally needed to support children at this juncture in history. The message I want to deliver is one that lessens intimidation and empowers parents to upgrade their awareness of the brilliant potential and unique intelligence of their child as well as the science behind this burgeoning and perhaps inevitable neurodiversity. I would like to start with encouraging parents to review their knowledge of their child from the moment she was conceived. No one can do this better than a child’s parents, even if the child is adopted. The way to do this is to create an environment that allows you to follow the child and let them reveal to you the power of their presence in your life. From this core awareness of who your child is you will be in the perfect position to advocate successfully. No evaluation or test takes the place of the inherent truth that is available to you and that lives within your child implicitly and indigenously. Adults have the gift of language and the capacity to witness and thereby learn from their child. This case study from my book New Frontiers in Sensory Integration says it all.
Sergei is an adoptive child who was diagnosed with sensory dysregulation, hyperactivity, learning disorders and developmental delay. His mother was confounded by his tantrums, his outrageous behavior in public and his inability to wind down at home. She had tried everything, including medication, which had been ineffective. She was recommended to me by a medical professional who knew of my work.
My environment is soothing because it is surrounded by nature and is open and spacious. When a young child comes for a family session I frequently set up a big colorful tent with a winding tunnel at its exit door. I am always curious how a youngster will respond to this. Nothing is predictable. Sergei ignored the tent for a while, circling the room, looking out the windows at the mountains, and flitting about like a hummingbird. Finally he did zero in on the tent. He looked inside and then he looked at his mother, questioningly.
“Do you want to go inside the tent?” I asked him.
He nodded his head affirmatively and darted inside, like lightening.
I expected Sergei to rock the walls of the tent, pull it down or rush out, but he did none of these. Instead the room became deafeningly silent. It was almost as if Sergei had disappeared. After a few moments I asked, “Are you OK in there Sergei?”
A soft voice answered, “Uh huh.”
“Do you want to come out now?” I ventured.
Again the response was soft. “No.”
Sergei’s mother and I looked at each other incredulously. We did not know what to make of this. Bird songs lilted in through the open windows. It was summertime. A warm breeze fluffed the air. In the distance a dog barked. Tree branches scratched the windows.
“Do you want to come out now?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Is there something you are waiting for?” I asked.
“Yeah,” was the almost whispered response.
“What is it?” I said, trying not to sound too eager.
“My angel,” Sergei said, quite matter-of-factly.
Again Sergei’s mother, who was sitting on the sidelines, looked at me with amazement.
“What angel?” I asked, now drenched in curiosity.
“The one who watches over me. I am waiting for my angel to come. I can’t come out until then.”
“How will you know when your angel is here?” I said, sitting on the edge of my seat.
“I will hear the wings beating,” he answered, as if I should have known that.
We were now in the domain of the miraculous. I signaled Sergei’s mother to move around the tent and raise her arms audibly up and down as if they were wings. She understood and rose to circle the tent. I could see that tears were starting to stream down her face. She was Sergei’s angel. It was her spirit that was protecting him even before they met. Sergei knew this deeply inside himself but he could not identify this memory until he was in an environment that made it possible to recall it.
Sergei’s mom circled the tent and I asked Sergei if he could hear the angel wings beating around him. He replied that he could. Then I asked Sergei’s mother to sit at the exit to the tent, at the end of the tunnel.
“Can you come out now, Sergei?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied his voice slow, close to a breathy whisper, as if all this were a secret we shared.
He came out crawling, looking sleepy and adorable. He made his way tenuously through the tunnel to his mother. She extended her arms and then he rushed into her embrace without a moment’s hesitation as if he had finally found something he was had been seeking. He nestled his head on her chest. Then he looked up at her and said, “I can hear your heart.”
She bent her ear to his chest and said, “I can hear yours too.”
They took turns listening to each other’s hearts and looking into each other’s eyes as if recognizing each other for the first time.
I cannot tell you exactly how I knew what to ask Sergei. I simply stepped into his world and dared to collaborate with him in it. My link with him came from observing him. I followed him with my curiosity and attention and joined him in his play. This became a model that his mother would replicate in her relationship with her son. She absorbed it experientially, without reading any notes, during this exquisite time.
Sergei himself provided the summary of his session about a month later. “I’m not wild anymore,” he told me. “I used to be, but not anymore.” And that was that.
Sergei could now focus. He was no longer interested in being destructive. His energy was no longer unsequenced and out of turn, disruptive and chaotic. He had come home.
My intervention was primarily to do nothing. I did not insist that he make sense on my terms. On the contrary, I sought his sense. I entered the inner workings of Sergei’s limbic experience and engaged with him there, and so did his mom. The experience became a model for how to be with this precious boy whose incredible internal spirit had now been freed and was visible to the person who matters the most in his world, his mother. Their bonding, as if it had occurred at the moment of birth, was realized and complete. By creating a space in which she could understand her child’s experience this mother simultaneously advocated for her child and gave herself the opportunity to receive the gift that his life brought to her as a woman who could not bear her own children.