Four words revolutionize how we now view and help kids with special needs: The brain can change. That’s a powerful statement with huge implications.
Only a few decades ago, scientists were convinced the brain was hard-wired . . . that was until modern technology, such as MRIs and PET scans, proved otherwise. With the same certainty that we know the sun rises, we now also know that the brain has the ability to change and re-organize itself. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity.
So what does that mean to a family with a child with autism or ADD or apraxia or dyslexia or any other diagnosis?
It means that such kids may not have to spend an entire lifetime compensating. It means that it’s possible to inhibit retained primitive reflexes and complete lower brain development, even if such neural networks were not established during the first year of life. It means that it’s possible to experience a completely different life once the brain is organized and functioning the way it’s intended.
In other words, how we act is not necessarily a reflection of who we were meant to be. It may actually only be an indication of how our brain is presently wired—and that can change.
It turns out that brain organization in the first year of life sets the stage for all future brain development. If babies are placed on their stomachs during the majority of this time, the brain has a chance to make key neural connections. This early network then forms an important foundation from which the brain continues to develop and organize itself in the most efficient way.
But what if that first year development is incomplete?
Well, the child still gets upright—but without many of the basic brain functions related to early development. This then becomes a problem because such functions are intended to be automatic whenever the child interacts with others, writes, reads, processes information, and does everything else in his life.
Moreover, since these basic functions are important and often related to survival, the cortex (the higher centers of the brain) is now preoccupied with finding ways to compensate for those missing functions. So how might that create chaos?
Well, suppose someone asks us to do another person’s job (which we are not qualified to do) while still expecting us to fulfill our duties at our current job. What’s likely to happen? We surely won’t succeed at the new job, and there will be a decline in our performance at our current job. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become incompetent. No, we’re just being torn in too many directions at the same time to now show what we’re capable of doing. The same scenario parallels what happen when a child is trying to function with a cortex that is trying to pick up the slack for incomplete lower brain development.
But most people aren’t aware of the connection between behavior and incomplete development of the lower centers of the brain. So when we don’t get the behavior we want, we often assume that a diagnosis is the reason we shouldn’t expect otherwise or the child just isn’t trying hard enough. In fact, we’re all conditioned to believe that if we try—and try again and again—we will succeed. However, nothing could be further from the truth if certain brain development is not yet complete.
That means it’s very possible we know kids who are working harder than we’ve imagined and who are capable of doing more than what we observe. That’s why we need to know about neuroplasiticity.
If given a chance, the brain is capable of finishing whatever development wasn’t completed the first time around. It’s even clever enough to form alternate new routes, if necessary. In other words, it’s possible to organize the brain—at any age—so that it works more efficiently.
And once the brain is organized, a whole new set of possibilities emerge. What was once deemed impossible is now a reality.
Sound too far-fetched? Not when we consider that most traditional approaches address the cortex, rather than focus on inhibiting retained primitive reflexes and developing lower centers of the brain. Such approaches are analogous to trying to fix a toaster by repeatedly polishing the exterior when, in fact, several interior wires are loose. In such case, if we just connect those loose wires, who’s surprised to learn that the very same toaster now produces toast?
Is it hard to wrap our head around the idea that the brain can truly change . . . and to even ponder a different life for our child? Absolutely. After all, we’ve probably had high hopes before—only to be disappointed and heartbroken when nothing really improved.
So if we find ourselves in that protective, not-so-open mindset, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself may be helpful. In this easy-to-read book, Doidge documents current research on neuroplasticity, alongside case studies of people with learning disabilities and strokes—all who experienced the brain can change.
Without question, the parents of special needs children spend an inordinate amount of money and time helping their children. With such extraordinary commitment and dedication already place, it seems almost unfair if the topic of neuroplasticity isn’t, at least, on such parents’ radar.
Moreover, if we remain in the dark, we won’t be able to consider how to apply this phenomenon of the brain to our own child’s life.
And as an extra gift, wouldn’t it be great if special needs kids were among the first to teach and prove to other families . . . the brain can change.
Nancy Sokol Green, creator of the Brain Highways program, is the Executive Director of the Brain Highways Centers in San Diego and Denver. She also oversees the Brain Highways international online program. For more information about the various programs, go to www.brainhighways.com. To read unsolicited posts about the kinds of changes children have experienced with brain organization, visit the Brain Highways facebook page (you can get there by clicking on the “f” logo at the top of the Brain Highways website’s homepage).