One question I am regularly asked is why movement for autism? For me movement is a no-brainer – no pun intended. This week alone I will spend five nights dancing, two nights training gymnastics, several hours playing cello, my first class in Krav Maga, an hour or more spent swinging kettle bells, an hour practicing saber, and at least one run. Clearly, I like to stay physically active! But what does this have to do with autism – and specifically your child with autism?
We are all in movement all the time. It does matter whether your child’s favorite self-regulating behavior is jumping or sitting still. Both of those are the nervous system organizing the body in space. The brain is constantly in motion – dendrites receiving chemical signals, nerve bodies transmitting those signals, axons releasing chemical signals. On a slightly larger scale there is digestion, breathing, heartbeat. All of these are the nervous system in motion and in action. If a nervous system is in motion at all times than of course some amount of motor training is useful to improve brain function.
Let’s try different analogy. You are very good at writing your name with your dominant hand. (Stick with me. This is relevant!) I’m left-handed and I can write my name with my left hand even if my eyes are closed. After considerable practice I can also write my name with my right hand and it still looks like a toddler’s scrawl. I cannot write my name with either hand behind my back. I wouldn’t know where to start where the R begins where the N ends. It’s hard to even hold a pen behind my back! That said, it is possible to learn to write with the writing hand behind the back. That is an upgrade of the capacity to write – through increased complexity. In other words it is an upgrade to your nervous system. Less extreme “upgrades” include writing with just one eye closed and writing while talking simultaneously. As we learn to move with increased complexity in increasingly complex ways we become better organized in the new positions and at the baseline, too!
Just like those stories about seniors who have played Sudoku or the New York Times crossword for 50 years and are brilliantly sharp, many different activities can keep the nervous system active. However with autism we begin, not with the New York Times crossword, but where the child is now. Often that means joining them in their physical “isms” – their self-regulating behaviors. If the child likes to jump, we start with jumping. If the child likes to scream, we start with variations – “How loud can you yell? How quietly can you shout?” Then we move into slower and gentler movement because such movement is easier for the brain to interpret.
In studying the Anat Baniel Method I have spent years training myself to perceive very refined, delicate movement. Because I can upgrade my nervous system to that level of slow and gentle delicacy I can bring to the table a level of sensitivity of touch that most people never experience. My capacity to approach a child, touch them and perceive a great deal about them physically is much higher than most people’s. When an individual, especially someone as acutely aware of attitude as a child with autism, is touched with such delicacy they often experience it as inviting. Touch is usually used with demand. “Let me help you put on your shoes, because we have to get out the door to catch the bus!” My way of touching is much more inviting and thus much more likely to be used by the brain of that child to create change.
I train movement in a number of different ways because I find it extremely pleasurable to do so. I don’t often push when I train challenging activities. Similarly, I don’t push or expect when I use movement with a child with autism. Instead I am enthusiastic and inviting, gently requesting them to join me in increasingly complex organizations.