What can we learn from babies and how the brain has an amazing ability to ‘get to work’ on autism spectrum:
Toddlers climb on everything to train and integrate their nervous system with their environment. It is a fun and complex task that takes up all of their time. During this time, they learn all about their orientation schema. They are building spatial awareness, fine and gross motor skills, how the weight of their body mobilises in reference to their environment. As well, their brain is making and integrating maps of their body at higher and higher levels of sophistication. The baby is learning to be embodied.
So what happens when this doesn’t happen? What happens if the person was immobilized at birth? What if their nervous system was in a shut-down mode and they could not mobilise their body? What if they could not build and integrate that spatial awareness of self?
Many people on the autism spectrum, and people with intellectual disability fall into this category. They have never truly been in their body. They didn’t get to make friends with it when they were little. They didn’t get to move it and to learn what it could do. They didn’t get to make internal maps and schemas of the body that let them know what was happening inside them. They were estranged from their body.
Often the body hurts, or the brain is in cortical shock which leaves the tiny system in a lockdown, safety state. The developing nervous system is then unable to move freely and spatially orient the body. In this state often the eyes and ears are locked in a certain pattern, the vestibular system is locked in a pattern and the person becomes accustomed to this being their truth.
These babies end up being big people who do not have a good relationship with their body. They have poor interoceptive skills – they don’t know what’s happening in their body. Their body is stuck in a loop and this has modified how they see themselves and how they see the world.
This then becomes a fixed loop that is confirmed and maintained by medical and allied health practices that tell you you have a lifelong and mostly fixed, condition.
But what we know about neuroscience is challenging this.
Firstly, because the brain is so clever it will, in its confinement, in its constriction, make other pathways and develop other skills. You often see people with autism and intellectual disability being highly insightful and empathetic; they might have amazing memory or analytic capacity. Sometimes they have incredible ability to connect with nature – one ID client of mine could hear the snap peas open in Spring! (her mother only knew of this when she asked why she was always standing out under the washing line for hours listening intently!).
Not only this, we also know the brain can change at any age. So what are the actual possibilities for people with these difficulties? Can we help soothe the body? Can we help wake it up? Move it out of its immobilised state? If we move it out of an immobilised state, does the brain then access capacities that were maybe not as ‘broken’ as we thought? Were some of the functions – executive skills, coordination, communication skills, demand avoidance… more about the body being stuck in a fixed state and the brain followed?
What happens when we release the body from its fixed state? Does the brain open up? Do a lot of these capacities come back online? Can we open and assist the system to do all the mapping and integrating that it couldn’t do before? Can this affect who these individuals are and how they orient in the world? Can it allow them to know themselves anew?
The answer is yes.
What I am seeing time and time again is that the brain has an amazing ability to ‘get to work’ on these issues the minute it is given free reign to do so. If we can re-mobilise the body – in a way that is meaningful and accessible for the individual, the brain/ body is very open to growth and change. I have a forty-year old client with severe intellectual disability who has shifted in ways that were unimaginable. She is now choosing her own clothes, getting her own breakfast, articulating her wants and needs and her staff and family are having to totally renegotiate who and how they are with her. They are now not calling all the shots and she now has a say in her life – because she can.
I have a thirteen year old young female client with ID whose interoceptive capacity changed after a few short sessions, so that she could know when to use the toilet and when to vomit before it happened. We did not formal training on these issues, we just worked with her body.
Another client with cerebral palsy began walking with a lot more ease and strength in her ‘weak’ leg, as well her speech, hearing and hand-eye coordination also improved. Again, with working to realign her with her body.
There is so much we can do when we take a step back from what we have been told is true and start to look and listen to the potential and innate wisdom of the body and what it can do.