Kassie, a three-year-old, suffered brain damage at birth, which left her with severe spastic cerebral palsy. She received intense therapies for two and a half of these three years.
There was little she could do on her own. When trying to move, her whole body tightened even more, and her attempts failed.
After I’d worked with Kassie for several months, she was able to use her arms and hands, sit comfortably without toppling, and made great gains in her speech and cognition.
But one thing stayed the same, no matter what I did. The moment Kassie moved, her legs instantly became extremely spastic and she couldn’t use them. However, if I moved Kassie’s legs very slowly and gently they became completely free.
Why was Kassie gaining freedom and movement control throughout her body but not in her legs, I wondered.
One day, it dawned on me. Kassie did not have two legs, she had only one leg! Because her legs always moved together as one, she never felt or perceived them as separate. We saw two legs, but in her brain they were mapped as one “thing.” And for the brain, a difference that is not perceived does not exist. When her legs were exercised in therapy, Kassie’s brain perceived only one “thing” moving.1
To help Kassie begin experiencing her legs as two different “things,” I picked up two markers and drew a red cat on one knee and a blue dog on the other. Then I gently moved the knees towards each other for the cat and dog to kiss.
Kassie was transfixed and delighted. Then the dog chased the cat, which she found hilarious. Many more variations followed.
Two weeks later, Kassie could stand up holding onto a table. Kassie’s brain transformed her one leg into two legs—like Dr Seuss’s“thing one” and “thing two.” This incredible transformation happened through changes in Kassie’s brain, not in the muscles.
By providing Kassie with the opportunity to perceive differences in areas of her body that were highly undifferentiated due to her brain injury, her brain created new connections and patterns. The richness of these new underlying neural networks led to her spontaneously being able to stand up for the first time, and later walk with a walker, make friends, and most importantly, have a positive sense of self and agency.
To understand breakthroughs such as Kassie’s, we need to understand a bit more about how the brain works. The brain’s job is to create order from disorder and make sense out of nonsense—to take the vast, continuous flow of stimulation coming through our senses and organize it into something coherent.
We need to understand that the brain works by very different laws than the ones we’re used to. It’s not a mechanical system, it’s an information system. The source of information is the perception of differences, what neuroscientists refer to as signal-to-noise ratio.
When perceiving differences, the brain differentiates through the growth of new neural connections and spontaneously integrates some of these into a new skill, i.e. learning.
The common denominator
The brain of the child with special needs is challenged in its ability to perceive differences, especially in the areas of limitation. The more we can help the child improve their ability to perceive differences in any area, the better their brain will perceive differences in general, and the more information their brain will have for learning and overcoming limitations.
In my experience, this is true no matter what the challenge is, be it cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, genetic disorder, ADHD, etc.
This approach, which I call Neuromovement®, is a fundamental departure from the most common way of responding to a challenge, which is to tackle it directly. When a car tire is punctured, there is a fix to it. We have direct control over it. With the brain of a child, we depend on their brain to do its own job successfully.
The most potent intervention, and one increasingly supported by neuroscience, is the one that creates the conditions that support and wake up the brain to use its incredible potential to create what wasn’t there before, despite undeniable challenges.2
Brain “rules” for change
In my experience, what I term ‘The Nine Essentials’ dramatically enhance the brain’s ability to perceive differences. Here are four essentials to begin applying immediately for any child with challenges:
Movement with attention. Bring your child’s attention to what they feel as they move, or when you move them, and their brain will form billions of new connections, creating new possibilities and transformations.
Slow. Fast, your child can only do what they already are doing. Slow gets the brain’s attention, activating the formation of rich, new neural networks.
Variations. Create differences to be perceived. Call it play, mistakes or exploration. Introduce variations into what you do with your child, and their brain will create the new.
Subtlety. Reduce force and intensity when interacting with your child and guide them to experience ease. With greater sensitivity their ability to perceive differences will blossom and they will become a brilliant learner.
Anat Baniel and Neil Sharp
Anat Baniel, founder of Anat Baniel Method®NeuroMovement®, is the author of the bestselling books Move Into Life and Kids Beyond Limits. Her work is at the forefront of movement sciences and brain change providing breakthrough outcomes to athletes, musicians, those suffering from pain and injury and children with special needs. See www.anatbanielmethod.com and www.anatbanieltraining.com
Download the 9 Essentials e-book for working with children: www.anatbanielmethod.com/9-essentials-for-children-ebook
Neuroscience, 2004; 129: 141–56.
Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2010; 107, 13900–05; Prog Brain Res, 2011; 191, 119–31