The Child Knows Best

Posted: May 26th, 2014 | Category: News | 0 comment

What follows is the continuation of a story of my work with a little boy with autism and his family. To learn more read the first post and please leave comments below!


This morning, walking in, Jay was vibrant with enthusiasm and energy. It wasn’t exactly the expression he was making; something about how he moved around the room suggested a very positive mood. Double checking with Mary, she confirmed that he seemed quite happy and content.

That said, his energy was high with a lot of very active motion. This is fun to participate in but made working hands-on with Jay a bit difficult. With moments of putting my hands on him, I believe I started with a hand resting lightly on his shoulder, he slowed down. Over and over again I notice this trend with children and adults: that practicing experiential learning results in a high likelihood that the person in question will be very available to receive more attention and slow down rapidly. I do also notice that this tendency can dissipate somewhat overtime. Just as someone who doesn’t practice a foreign language regularly will gradually lose the subtlety of peak performance and to a certain level decrease in their clarity of speaking, so a child or adult can loose some of their subtlety of awareness and attention of slow movement over time.

Regardless, Jay slowed down tot he point of standing completely still and stopped self-regulating entirely. He still moved around periodically but usually only to shift between positions.

Unexpected Disruptions

At one moment during this period of quiet Jay was lying on his side and facing a mirror hung on the wall. As I went towards his shoulder I had a sudden impression that I would be disrupting him to stay in a certain position. This “instant” led me to move further along the table until I wasn’t blocking his view of the wall. In that moment I was reacting without conscious thought. When I paused and examined my behavior, describing it to Mary, I realized I had somehow sensed that Jay was looking actively. When I looked in the mirror myself he met my eyes. Had I stood blocking his view of the wall I would have unintentionally interrupted his view of the room, himself and me. I don’t know that this would have disappointed him, but I took action before thinking about why and as a result was more respectful of his activity.

The Child Knows Best

It is often tempting to carry on working with a child or adult past when it is useful. I equate this to my own experience of having conversations when I am tired, or trying to carry on with business past bedtime. The temptation to try for more than is actually useful is common along most people in my experience and I, still, sometimes experience this in my work with child. Increasingly, this week with Jay, he has increasingly clear in his actions or in words about when he wants a lesson and when he is through. As neuro-typical adults we often “push” ourselves to do more. I see this most often in fitness, for example the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” And to some extent with adults “Just Do It” force works to overcome obstacles. However, it absolutely does not work with children with autism. If I tried to force a child to do what I want, the likely result is the opposite of that action. So when Jay wanted to end our lesson and began asking for the key, at first I pretended not to know exactly what he wanted. This encouraged him to use his words and he said “Key” and “Door.” I opened the door at his request and he made his way downstairs.

Mary and I followed him down and found him again enjoying the swing.  I joined in that activity and resumed a game of earlier in the week when I would catch him and the height of the swing and release him on his command. I continued to discuss working with Jay with Mary and demonstrate aspects of the movement with her. Jay left the swing and made his way to the front of his house. Eventually, I requested Mary to request Jay return upstairs. He did, sprinting past me and up the stairs. Instead of heading to his playroom, however, he went in the master bedroom, climbed on the bed, and buried himself under the covers. This combination was the final cue to me that Jay was done and did not want more hands-on work or attention during the morning.

My take away from this ending is – always – that a child knows best. A fascinating study was conducted on infants where they were left together with only minor oversight. They were given no directives about what to eat or when, and given free access to a wide variety of foods. At first, the children were observed to gorge themselves, often on sweets and food deemed “unhealthy.” Over time, however, the children self-regulated and made up for this consumption with proportionate amounts of so-called “healthy” food. The children actually were able to adjust themselves and over time developed eating patterns, that while not typically balanced meals, resulted in a healthy diet. From this I also think of children with autism’s tendency to crave very specific foods. I am not suggesting we let children (or anyone) eat exactly what they want. Rather, that there are reasons, unknown to us, for a child’s behavior. If we had looked at any one meal of the children in the study, we would likely call it unhealthy. However, taken in total they ate not-dissimilarly from their control group peers. With Jay the best course of action is to accept when he is done receiving support – be that movement education or anything else. It is very fair to double-check with him about what he wants, bargain, attempt to reach an agreement, etc. but he, the children in the study, and we all are our own best experts.

As an aside, I find it useful to ask myself “why” when faced with circumstances like Jay wanting to leave the room. Asking “why” about both his behavior and my own result in useful insights.

  • Why does he want to leave (do I think)?
  • Why do I believe that he should/shouldn’t?

As I think about wrapping up my week with Jay I look back at how much we’ve accomplished. In our first day together we was all over the playroom and even during our second morning his energy seemed uncontrolled. Over time we have both gotten comfortable around each other and Mary tells me that he asks after me and has expressed disappointment that I will be gone after today. He is a very social, very active boy and I see a very bright future for him. The social development I think is already been well-supported in his playroom volunteers and his clear interest in engaging with other people. If I would choose one aspect to continue to improve in that domain, it might be reducing emphasis on anything (reading and writing, for example) other than his interests. In his physicality Jay is continuing to grow and support here I think is very useful. He might not yet be ready to engage in a martial arts class with other children, for example, but such physical games in the future will be very useful. There is a physical bonding and growing that happens for children that I think will be very useful to support Jay’s development. And the application of gentle, hands on work with Jay I see as pivotal. He lacks some awareness of the difference between subtle and dramatic movement, especially when he is experience intense emotions (happy or sad). I have seen change in this, most clearly by how much he calms down when I begin with him. The regular application of this level of subtlety will be useful. Mary is excitedly practicing the principles and hands-on on adults (volunteers, her husband) and with Jay many times a day. I wish there were a way to impart my decade of movement learning and subtly in an afternoon! Any amount more than what Jay has and Mary’s continual application is absolutely wonderful. And I think for Jay to have on-going hands-on application from someone very experienced will also be extremely beneficial.

Granted I am not as closely involved with the day-in, day-out as Jay’s family is, but I see nothing but a hopeful, social and loving future for him. With the level of energy and excitement Jay’s team brings to bear, his clear participation and curiosity, I can’t wait to continue observing and supporting his progress.

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