A New Way Forward
Unlocking the Brain’s Fullest Potential
An increasingly frequent problem —
New and very effective methods exist to fundamentally help twice exceptional children. Exceptional because of academic gifts or talents, and exceptional because of impulsivity, behavior, or the way they experience life, means just getting through the day is complicated for them, as well as the parents and professionals who help them. These gifted children often collect a bewildering array of labels: ADD/ADHD, OCD, ODD, DCD, Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities, anxiety disorders, Sensory Integration Disorder, Executive Dysfunction, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, autism spectrum, and more. (Webb, James T., et. al.)
Typical interventions generally begin with a Gifted Individualized Education Program (GIEP). This takes into account the whole child, while acknowledging their talents and gifts as well as their challenges. More time for tests and assignments, altered homework, keyboarding in place of handwriting, additional staff support, a change of environment – to another seat in the class, or a different classroom or school, extra technology, and social support can help to compensate. Medication, while controversial, often enables the child to function.
. . . was our problem —
Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I tried these strategies for three of our children, with less than satisfactory results. Had someone told me that they had seen similar challenges respond well and permanently to a therapy, I would have leapt at the chance to learn more. In fact, if I could help free up their time for instruction on how to do more than Band-Aid over each symptom, I would have volunteered to take out their garbage and shovel their sidewalk!
We questioned why we could not find help on a fundamental level that addressed our children’s atypical neurology that prevented the full expression of their talents and gifts.
We wanted a solution, not a treatment.
We wanted an integrated solution, a technique that could go on with the child into adulthood.
We did not want our children to interpret accommodations and medication as a sign they were somehow less capable or worthy than other children.
We wanted them to be all that they were meant to be.
My husband and I opted to put the time we would have spent managing accommodations into finding answers, but these were hard to come by. Despite my background and experience as a nurse, I was unable to find an explanation that made sense of executive dysfunction, Pervasive Development Disorder, ADD, and Sensory Integration Disorder. There was no physiological pathway I could trace to determine what had happened to cause these issues, and therefore what could be done about it either. Research would not be done in time to help our sons through childhood.
So we became pragmatic: Did anything work? We resorted to unconventional options. Our search uncovered a few logical explanations for our sons’ differences, as well as other children who shared these same challenges.
It is to parents and professionals who are currently asking the questions we asked 25 years ago, that I write – and you don’t even have to take out my garbage or shovel my walk!
If you are content with where your child is and how things are, hooray! You don’t need to consider further options. Ours was a long and difficult path; I’d like to spare others a similar one, because –
We found answers! —
We found an explanation that made complete sense to my western-medically trained mindset, while being very much out of the usual medicate-and-modify situational response. It led to therapy that enabled significant and permanent growth in their capabilities.
This discovery intervenes holistically at the physical level, leaving people who practice these exercises with optimum neurology. It’s better than eyeglasses for poor eyesight; it’s more like Lasik!
The scientific community has known it for a long time: the sensory information from the body and its movements has a huge effect on the brain and the formation of neuronal connections. (Greenough & Black; Shatz)
As researchers have noted, today’s sedentary lifestyle and modern conveniences, coupled with various environmental toxins, seem to aggravate risk factors that impact children’s developing nervous system (Blomberg & Dempsey).
It made sense to me: Doesn’t the amount we move affect our weight, blood pressure, risks for heart attack, stroke, and cancer, depression and osteoporosis? What about aging and dementia? Isn’t it logical that a lack of sensory input from movement during our earliest months affects our nervous system’s development as well?
Fortunately, neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to form new neurons – exists in both children and adults. Our brains are continually adapting to what we need and use. One study shows that children who type instead of writing were shown to have less complex neuronal nets (Bounds). Taxi drivers in London have a larger hippocampus on the right side of their brain, where spatial memories are stored, assisting them with the unusually complex streets systems (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers). Ideally, the brain develops these systems at the biologically preferred time (Healy).
Dr. Harald Blomberg is a Swedish psychiatrist who struggled with post-polio syndrome in the 1980s. He’d heard that Kerstin Linde, a self-taught movement therapist also from Sweden, was getting astounding results (Blomberg, pg 3) working with children who had motor disorders. Blomberg’s post-polio syndrome responded so well to the movements that he was inspired to use it with his patients. The effects were also stunning: patients diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, schizophrenia, and psychosis diagnoses improved dramatically (Blomberg & Dempsey)
Dr. Blomberg posits that ADD and ADHD are the result of a “stalling” in our earliest reflex development. Ideally, these reflexes are learned from the time we’re in utero through learning to walk.
This connection of brain and body, one of the tasks of the primitive reflexes, turns out to be crucial. ADD and ADHD behaviors sound remarkably like a one or two year old behaviors. Blomberg has promising theories for the different causes between ADD and ADHD, with corresponding treatments.
A 2012 study showed a statistical correlation for children with symptoms of ADHD and retained primitive reflexes (Konicarova and Bob). Other studies such as the 2000 study by McPhillips, published in the Lancet, showed an improvement in children with dyslexia who followed a movement-based program to integrate the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR). (McPhillips, Hepper, & Mulhern)
Blomberg and Moira Dempsey, an Australian educator and kinesiologist, developed movements that infants typically make into a program called Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT). Their book, Movements That Heal, makes a strong case about environmental toxins and their connection to neurological deficits.
Blomberg argues that an increased potential for symptoms of autism, schizophrenia, and psychosis greatly increase with exposure to electromagnetic fields, particularly wireless technology and to heavy metals, and especially with in utero exposure.
Certainly the results I consistently see using RMT’s techniques are dramatic. Two of the earliest reflexes we learn are centered on physical safety and survival. Without the benefit of matured reflexes, our subconscious mind perceives that some unknown danger lurks. This deficit makes focusing and paying attention difficult, as our bodies are instinctively on alert for approaching danger. The ability to remain still is another example of a developmental stage that can get skipped, hence the hyperactivity so often displayed.
I was stunned when I heard descriptions of symptoms and behaviors related to the consequences of those unlearned primitive reflexes. We’d never learned any of this in nursing school! Part of what they described was Dabrowski’s sensory and psychomotor Overexcitabilities!
I was thunderstruck at the possibility of a biological cause for these OEs. I’d known that learning differences can be helped with Brain Gym®, but this news– along with the rest of RMT’s particular outlook on the role of reflex development in our physical, emotional and functional lives – suggested that the global issues of the twice-exceptional individual could be significantly impacted.
When I see parents asking for help online with everything from handwriting to emotions and behavior or learning disabilities – essentially that second exceptionality — I sigh. Almost 100% of the time, I can identify which reflex is likely to be the culprit. That reflex can be learned and strengthened, if the child and the parents so choose, using specialized movement.
Regardless of whether a child is seven or 17 year old, the demands of judgment and attention require a strong and complex network of neuronal connections. But if the natural maturation of the brain was hindered while the rest of the body continued to grow, the necessary connections are just not there. Particularly with gifted children, the connections are rich and wonderful within their intellectual cerebral cortex, but the connections to the brain, even within the brain, are underdeveloped.
Similarly, someone whose brain has difficulty connecting the left hemisphere to the right can have problems with transitions, from the linear details required by math, to the spatial perceptions related to art or baseball-playing. They can be under-aware of others, or under-aware of themselves; social interaction becomes problematic in either case.
The grand scheme made more sense – somehow more logical – when I realized the parallels that seem to exist between the architecture of the brain, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the schedule that the nervous system seems to follow. I constructed a three dimensional model to illustrate this hierarchy:
The bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – physiological survival – corresponds well with the brainstem’s importation of basic sensory information from the body into the brain. The pinnacle of the Hierarchy of Needs – self-actualization – is echoed in the prefrontal cortex’s ability to synthesize information from around the brain, which it can do only if numerous connections are well formed. In between, correlations are more nuanced as nervous system development weaves its scaffold throughout the brain structure, also corresponding to the Hierarchy of Needs. .
Using this theory of neuronal connections within the brain, particularly reflex development, we can also trace logical explanations for much of the other atypical neurological issues.
However, the proof is in the pudding – does it work?
We started seeing results —
I customized a program that benefited my family, utilizing techniques from Brain Gym, RMT and a few other programs. My sons made across-the-board improvement with skills that previously were very difficult for them. In addition, I discovered they were not the only ones in my family who were not functioning at their best. Much to my surprise and delight, on days when I did 20 minutes of simple Brain Gym movements, I gained 2-1/2 hours of increased productivity! This personal experience gave me the mission of sharing what I had learned with my clients, and also teach students who enroll in my courses.
Our son is twice-exceptional – exceptionally gifted, but with several issues, including dysgraphia, which prevented him from being able to write his thoughts onto paper. When he was eight years old, I started doing Brain Gym with him. A month’s worth of simple Brain Gym exercises had produced dramatic results to his brothers, in posture, awareness, coordination improvements and other changes. He seemed to catch on to writing in that month, but since the change wasn’t as dramatic as his brothers, he stopped doing the exercises. In another month’s time, the dysgraphia was back.
We had forgotten what an enormous roadblock not being able to write had been in his life! An entire day was spent fruitlessly trying to write a single paragraph. Twenty minutes worth of Brain Gym exercises later, he wrote two pages in an hour, as fast as his handwriting would allow.
A few months later, he stopped doing all the exercises as regularly, with no return of the dysgraphia. He’s a productive adult now, and on the rare occasion that he finds self-expression difficult, a minute or two of exercises does the trick.
Then there’s nine-year-old Jessie, whose mom brought her to me because of Jessie’s increasingly severe anxiety. Jessie refused to do schoolwork, follow directions, and showed an increasing reluctance to speak. During a RMT exercise in our second session together, Jessie suddenly smiled at me, and a deep gurgle of joy came from the depths of her very being. She laughed with relief, while her mom and I looked on in amazement. A third session confirmed that she was speaking, with increasing fluency and joy. Her willingness to read, study, and perform assignments returned. Her reading comprehension and spelling also improved. Today she’s thriving academically and working to her abilities.
Thirteen-year-old TJ, in the gifted program in school and seemingly without major problems, nonetheless struggled quietly with stress. Performance anxiety with competitive baseball responded well, Mom reported, to a few Brain Gym movements.
He responded to RMT exercises in a surprising way: His mom noted that she no longer had to pry information out of him; he now opened up emotionally with her on meaningful issues. TJ is moving into adolescence with the ability to generate meaningful communication with his parents.
How I wish that we could catch more kids at the “I’m just stressed!” stage rather than having to deal with full-blown anxiety!
Twelve-year-old Brett was brought to me for treatment of an explosive temper. He landed regularly in the principal’s office because of these outbursts. His mom felt his grades didn’t reflect his true capabilities.
Three weeks after their appointment, she wrote that they’d faithfully done the exercises as recommended. Not only was his temperament greatly improved, he was much happier, his grades were up, and he avoided any new trouble at school since our session. Three months post-appointment, Brett’s mother happily reported he was also now off his ADHD medication.
A word about not performing to one’s capabilities: If you are distracted because your body’s reflexes are telling you that you’re not safe. It’s as though you are trying to take an important test while wasps buzz overhead! Of course you are not going to be able to concentrate or perform to the best of your abilities!
With movement therapy, I have seen:
Anxiety and explosive tempers calm
- Stress levels drop
- Hypersensitivity recede
- Attention spans lengthen
- Social skills improve
- Coordination increase
- Organization develop
- Judgment mature
In other words, I have witnessed personality and emotions emerge in people who have been held back by diminished capacity of these important life skills.
It is a privilege to witness the astonishment, relief and joy as people find new capabilities in doing every day and challenging activities, responding automatically to problems and obstacles better than they had thought possible.
Although every case is different, sometimes improvement is evident within the first session. I take detailed notes of what is challenging at the start of a program, because the changes are natural and gradual, just like when a baby learns to crawl or walk, – or a son picks up on writing – that the progression to an every day task can be so subtle it’s as though a problem never existed.
Movement therapy is not a panacea:
- Sometimes a toxin is interfering with nervous system and must be removed to facilitate new neuronal connections.
- Sometimes the nervous system must first heal through a diet that eliminates gluten, dairy products, sugar, dyes and preservatives.
- In other cases, it’s an inability to consistently do the exercises within a busy life.
Sometimes the child and/or parent has essentially successfully made lemonade out of lemons, or incorporated the challenge into their self-definition, and continuing to cope works for them.
In our own situation, finances were strained, and we had to accept that insurance did not cover most of these treatments. But like our purchases of ibuprofen, toothpaste, gym membership or vitamins, we count learning these programs and receiving these therapies to be some of the best money we’ve spent. Fortunately, the programs that we found most effective also turned out to be the least expensive.
Details about the programs we found to be both effective and affordable –
My family found success addressing this lack of connections using specialized movement that is mostly pleasant, relaxing, or invigorating – sometimes all at once!
None of these will leave you out of breath.
They are taught effectively only in small groups under supervision. It’s quite a paradigm shift for those who are more accustomed to learning by watching a DVD or listening to lectures.
So what are these techniques? A variety of programs exist, but most people’s favorites start with Brain Gym®. It certainly is popular: founded in the late 1970s by Paul and Gail Dennison, it is now taught in 87+ countries, in 50 languages.
Teachers for an Omaha private school with a high percentage of students with learning disabilities have told me what a relief it is to have Brain Gym as a tool they can pull out with off-focus kids, especially in groups. They told me while they saw behavior problems decrease, grades as well as attention spans rose.
One teacher, this one from Michigan, wrote:
I’ve been using Brain Gym every hour every day for years. My 6th graders use this as the starting point for reading, writing and speaking presentations. They have just recently completed a writing exercise regarding the ability to write clear and concise directions for one of the brain gym activities. It has been fun and very useful. I find that, if I give up 2 to 5 minutes every hour for Brain Gym, I get 50 minutes of work from students. When we skip Brain Gym, time on task noticeably disintegrates.
Some years ago, when I began using Brain Gym in the classroom, I had quantitative data to prove its effectiveness. I give credit for on-task behaviors because, to become a better reader / writer / speaker, one must be reading and writing and speaking in a focused way. I put a slash mark on my seating chart over the name of students who were off task. I chronically had 10 to 20 marks per class each day. I introduced Brain Gym and found that number reduced immediately to 0 to 3! I dropped Brain Gym because of perceived lack of time, and the number jumped right back up. I returned to daily Brain Gym activities, and the number immediately dropped. Since that time, Brain Gym is such an expectation in this classroom that students remind me when I slip past it! I often see a student sitting back and repeating a Brain Gym activity in order to focus or think more clearly. I hear of students doing this in other classrooms even though the teachers there don’t teach the techniques.
Donna Davison, Slauson Middle School, Ann Arbor, Michigan
I have found that self-reported stress levels on a self-chosen topic typically drop dramatically, usually from an 8-10 to a 1-3 on a 10-point scale, within 5 minutes of exercises.
Like Brain Gym, Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT) is based on the theory that movement creates neuronal connections. However, its primary focus is on reflexes we should have learned, starting in utero, through learning to walk. Even those who don’t struggle find these movements give strong and dramatic changes in how they move, walk and perceive their world. It too is dramatically life-changing.
A third eye-poppingly helpful program is Bal-A-Vis-X. This multi-sensory approach uses sandbags, balls and balance boards to develop our balance, auditory, and visual senses, as well as hand-eye coordination. The most fun (almost addictive) of anything I’ve tried, these techniques are also tricky to teach properly, requiring hands-on instruction by a skilled instructor.
Using mostly these three disciplines, I’ve seen encouraging results that alleviated dyslexia and dysgraphia, dyscalcula, handwriting and organizational challenges, attention and focus, sensory processing, poor emotion processing and even emotion identification, mental alertness and awareness, autistic symptoms, posture, memory and learning, speaking, stress management, interpersonal relations, and coordination.
Time spent optimizing neurological function has a huge impact. Clients work with their health care providers as their dosage for medication gets reduced until they no longer need pharmaceutical intervention. Parents are delighted to find what their child is like when no longer distracted by reflexes or limited by their nervous system’s immaturity.
Allergies, especially when anxiety, ADD/ADHD, or autism spectrum symptoms are present, should always be considered.
Sleep disruptions: A clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine presents a plausible case for many cases of sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality being misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD (Thakkar). Sleep disturbances can be a sign of as-yet-unmatured early reflexes. Whether you treat sub-optimal sleep via medication, reflex maturation, or another method, it’s wonderful how attention and focus difficulties can resolve.
The Gastro-intestinal connection: Also, we are hearing more and more about the microbes in the gut and it’s relation to anxiety (Arnold). I advise parents to consider these types of issues as part of the overall remediation of both anxiety and autism.
Most studies that examine these neurological problems focus on pharmacological treatment, and so are funded by pharmaceutical companies. If the symptom can be eliminated via holistic methods that foster growth and strengthen neurological connections, therapy is far less expensive. Because there is no ongoing treatment to sell, there is no incentive to fund research that may make your treatment obsolete. V.S. Ramachandran is considered to be one of the most eminent neuroscientists in the world today. He recommends beginning with work on single instances of success and confirming results through larger studies (Ramachandran, pp. 5-6).
The variance on how fast holistic movement therapy works and which program works better on which person varies widely. These variances make the creation of a meaningful study difficult to design and implement. Our unique situations, bodies, programs chosen, diligence of practice, and broad definitions of what’s “normal,” make it impossible to accurately predict the duration of appropriate therapy. Generally, my clients start to see results in a month or two, though they continue on an exercise regimen as long as necessary for optimum results.
Finally, I suggest re-reading this article, substituting the world “adult” for “child.” You might discover that you see yourself as someone who might benefit from therapy aimed at development of the early, foundational nervou system.
Three books about Brain Gym:
Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All In Your Head, by Carla Hannaford, PhD . The starter book for how many of us got into this field. Interspersed with personal stories, anecdotes, and western-science, Carla’s brilliant synthesis of how we got here is a classic.
Playing in a Unified Field, also by Carla Hannaford. An updated version of the above, with fewer stories but a good grounding in the quantum physics underling these advances.
Educate Your Brain, by Kathy Brown. Writer, teacher, and Brain Gym instructor, Kathy Brown’s entertaining stories of success, teaches many Brain Gym exercises, and covers some of the theories why this works.
RMT: Movements That Heal, by Harald Blomberg, MD and Moira Dempsey . The fundamental book to Rhythmic Movement Training, Dr. Blomberg explains why we’re seeing the recent explosion of mental health issues. Blomberg and co-author, Moira Dempsey, review some of the reflexes and some beginning exercises for basic help.
Bal-a-Vis-X: Website: www.bal-a-vis-x.com
Resonance: Elise and Other Bal-A-Vis-X Stories, by Bill Hubert. A personal narrative behind the establishment of Bal-a-Vis-X, anecdotes, and biological explanations.
A few all around wonderful books on the brain and nervous system:
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind . Basic overview for preventing problems with children.
Spark by John Ratey, MD for general and exhaustive information on the effects of aerobic exercise.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist. Wonderful and very in-depth book on the brain and function. Also recommended by Dr. McGilchrist, but strictly for the nerds among us (it’s LONG and expensive): The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World
Ruth Murray, BSN, is a
therapist for those seeking an easier, more successful way to live by creating new connections within the brain, and
public speaker on gifted homeschooling, paradigm-shifting ways to create better brain function for people throughout the lifespan, focusing particularly on the twice-exceptional learner, applications for mental health, and geriatrics. For more information on classes, private sessions, speaking engagements, and pyramids, contact her at:
Arnold, Carrie. “Gut feelings: the future of psychiatry may be inside your stomach”. The Verge, 21 Aug 2013. http://www.theverge.com/2013/8/21/4595712/gut-feelings-the-future-of-psychiatry-may-be-inside-your-stomach. Web, accessed 1 Sep 2013.
Blomberg, Harald, MD. Rhythmic Movement Training: Level One (RMT and ADD/ADHD). 2006. USA: Moira Dempsey, 2008. Print.
Blomberg, Harald, MD, & Dempsey, Moira. Movements That Heal. Brisbane, Australia. Bookpal, 2011. Print.
Brown, Kathy. Educate Your Brain: Use mind-body balance to learn faster, work smarter and move more easily through life. Phoenix: Balance Point Publishing, LLC, 2012. Print.
Bounds, Gwendolyn. “How Handwriting Trains the Brain”, Wall Street Journal, 5 Oct 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704631504575531932754922518.html. Web, accessed 1 Sep 2013.
Greenough, W. T., & Black, J. E. “Induction of brain structure by experience: Substrates for cognitive development”. M. Gunnar & C. Nelson (Eds.). Developmental Behavioral Neuroscience: The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology – Volume 24, pp. 155-200. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1992. Print.
Hannaford, Carla, PhD. Playing in the Unified Field: Raising & Becoming Conscious, Creative Human Beings. Salt Lake City: Great River Books, 2010. Print.
—. Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head. Salt Lake City: Great River Books, 2005. Print.
Healy, Jane, PhD. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.
Hubert, Bill. Resonance: Elise and other Bal-A-Vis-X Stories. Witchita: Bal-A-Vis-X, Inc., 2007. Print.
Konicarova, Jana and Bob, Petr. “Retained Primitive Reflexes and ADHD in Children”. Activitas Nervosa Superior. 2012: Vol 54, No 3-4. Print.
Maguire EA, Woollett K, & Spiers HJ. “London Taxi Drivers and Bus Drivers: A Structural MRI and Neuropsychological Analysis”. Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging, University College London, 2006. http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/Maguire/Maguire2006.pdf. Web. Accessed 1 Sep 2013.
McGilchrist, Iain, MD. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
McLarty, Heidi. “Why I LOVE RMT, let me count the ways!!..”, Superior Therapy Connections, 14 Jan 2012. http://www.superiortherapyconnections.com/rmt-blog.html. Web, accessed 15 Sep 2013.
McPhillips, M., Hepper, P. & Mulhern, G. “Effects of replicating primary-reflex movements on specific reading difficulties in children: a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial”. Lancet. 12 Feb 2000: pp. 537-541. Print.
Ramachandran, V.S., PhD. “Take the Neuron Express for a Brief Tour of Consciousness”. The Science Network. The Science Studio, 10 Jun 2006. http://thesciencenetwork.org/media/videos/36/Transcript.pdf. Web. Accessed 1 Sep 2013.
Ratey, John J., MD. with Eric Hagerman. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2008. Print.
Schatz, Carla J., PhD. “The Developing Brain”, Scientific American, September 1992, pp. 61-67. Print.
Siegel, Daniel J., MD. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. Print.
—. The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Thakkar, Vatsal G., “Diagnosing the Wrong Deficit”. The New York Times Sunday Review, 28 Apr 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/diagnosing-the-wrong-deficit.html?pagewanted=all. Web. Accessed 1 Sep 2013.
Webb, James T., et. al., “Misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children”. Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, 2012. http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/misdiagnosis-and-dual-diagnosis-of-gifted-children. Web. Accessed 1 Sep 2013.d
© Copyright Ruth Murray 2013. All rights reserved.