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May 09
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by Jess

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. 

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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).

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9 Responses to “Why Parents Need to Know About Neuroplasticity”

  1. Brain plasticity is real and hopefully more parents will understand its importance and find programs that take advantage of a changing brain. Athletes or a good example. They practice repeatedly the same things to establish stronger pathways in the brain so that their mechanics get better. Actors practice lines and movements to get better at their craft. If the brain was fixed there would be no progress at learning new tasks or strengthening current ones. It seems almost implausible that it took so long for scientists to understand plasticity in the brain existed. This should give parents hope that their children can overcome difficulties with the RIGHT kind of programs and plan of action.

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  2. Yes the brain can change! Neuroplasticity is one of the keys to helping all people with neurological disorders or have has some type of neuro-trauma (stroke, car accident, etc). Stroke victims learn to function agian with the proper therapy programs now on a daily basis, it is not far fetched to think that brains can generate neurpoaths with the proper program in place, especially young brains. I am a PROUD Brain Highways parent, and along with my friends, family, teachers, & therpists, I have seen he change first-hand in my son. There is no question in my mind. I went in thinking, “The least that we will get is exercise, and he needs plenty of that, so what will it hurt, REALLY?” He received so much more. Check out their FB page, you will find more parents who will tell you the same thing.

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  3. So, would the rise in autistic behavior be partially explained by the current trend to place infants only in their back or sides when they are sleeping?

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  4. Hi Nancy,
    Thank you for the information on neuroplasticity relating to early child development. I would like clarification on a statement you make in paragraph 6:
    “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.”
    The first sentence summarizes one of the key learning from neuroscience, the importance and value of the first years cannot be overstated. However, the second sentence infers that neural development is somehow dependent on physical orientation. I have not seen any previous reference to this claim and it runs completely against my understanding of neural development. Please cite the medical/neuroscience research study that backs up this claim.

    Cheers,

    Keith

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    • Glad to have a chance to clarify the statement about babies on their stomachs being related to natural neurological development.

      I do not know of a published, scientific study that proves babies need to be on their stomach during the first year of life, but I also do not know of any that proves it doesn’t matter if they are not. If you’re aware of any controlled studies—where they compared adults who were and were not placed on their bellies for much of their first year of life—I would be very interested in reading that.

      But here is where the statement you refer to is based on: We have now had over 4,000 participants in the Brain Highways program. When people first start the program, we do a screening that shows whether participants innately know basic primitive reflex movements (that babies do) and whether their creep and crawl shows a fully evolved pattern.

      The overwhelming majority of our participants—which includes adults—do not initially seem to know how to move this way. Some are even very uncomfortable lying on their belly. It’s important to note that we don’t “teach” the movements that replicate what babies do, and we also don’t share what the fully evolved patterns look like.

      Yet, we observe concrete changes in all of the above, regardless of age, when participants are given a chance to do the work that parallels what babies do. The progression of changes also follows the exact same order, regardless of the participant’s age. And . . . when specific characteristics of these key movements start to evolve, we note that participants acquire observable basic brain functions, such as eye tracking—which were not existent prior to starting the program.

      So, yes, research is great and always welcome. But we have experienced that our participants have not wanted to wait for formal, scientific documentation, especially considering that our program has no associated risks. Thanks for your question.

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  5. Please could you provide evidence that primitive reflexes influence thinking skills.
    And also that a baby needs to spend a large amount of time on the tummy to develop the brain. What is the evidence for this?

    Your article flies in the face of the latest neuroscience on development. There are many factors that affect a child’s development of movement, emotional and thinking skills. Lying on the tummy develops strength in the muscles of the back and arms and is a transition position to getting up onto all fours.

    The concept of primitive reflexes belong to the neurophysiology of 1970. It has long been discarded as we learn more about how babies develop and how their brains are shaped by experience.

    You are propagating information that is patently incorrect.

    A pity.

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  6. I’m actually somewhat baffled by your strong emotional response to my article and that you feel you must protect parents from . . .what? You accuse me of propagating information that is “patently incorrect,” yet you provide no scientific documentation of your own in regards to tummy time and primitive reflexes being inconsequential to brain development or studies that prove no differences among adults who did and did not spend time on their bellies as an infant.

    So not sure why you feel compelled to shield parents from pondering whether it might be better to have their babies spend more time playing on the floor than in baby apparatus or knowing that it’s possible to inhibit primitive reflexes (if retained) and complete lower brain development after a child is upright—especially when the latter is risk-free, drug-free, and does not conflict with any other kind of therapy.

    To directly respond to some of your comments: Nothing in the article even implies that simply putting an infant on his or her belly is all a parent would need to do to develop their child’s brain. Obviously, a baby’s brain is shaped by lots of experiences.

    However, from what you write, it appears that you don’t believe that the brain has a natural way to develop, or that it’s possible that we’ve interfered with that process since babies today often spend their first year differently than previous generations.

    Also, primitive reflexes are not a “concept.” Babies are born with them. That’s a fact. In natural brain development, such reflexes become inhibited as the higher level of the brain continues to develop. Sally Goddard’s well-researched book, Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior, provides detailed explanations on this topic. So, again, please share specific, contrary research that documents it’s unimportant whether such reflexes are inhibited, or that they automatically are inhibited, no matter how the baby spends his or her first year of life.

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  7. My nine-year-old son has been a participant in the Brain Highways Jumpstart program for eight weeks. He is nonverbal with a diagnosis of autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. He can walk but has very limited use of his hands (sensory defensiveness) and his favorite activity is shaking toys and looking at trees and plants. About a year ago he started banging his head and head-butting others, which got him transferred to the school for the most disabled kids in the county. I literally prayed every morning that I could get him ready for school without getting knocked in the head and I knew it was only a matter of time before he broke my nose. He has been in discrete trial therapy, OT, PT, Speech and still functioned at the level of an infant except that he could walk.

    Here is a short list of things my son is doing since he started Brain Highways. Some of them happened within the first two days.
    –He is looking us in the eyes and smiling more.
    –He climbs in and out of the car by himself.
    –He is sitting through church without needing to be taken out for crying. People who had no idea he was doing Brain Highways have noticed and commented.
    –He is clapping his hands, with fully open hands. This is HUGE. He was very defensive of the palms of his hands and always kept them clasped shut.
    –Yesterday because he had something in his right hand, he reached across his body and closed the car door with his left hand, CROSSING MIDLINE, something he has never done in his entire life.
    –He will now “high-five” people to greet them.
    –He will answer yes/no questions. His receptive language is completely there.

    Neuroplasticity aside, the online parent-training materials that come as part of the course are extremely well-designed and well-written. Each week’s course materials include audio instruction, simple and entertaining videos that feature former Brain Highways kids, and downloadable handouts. I am learning how to be a better parent overall in addition to teaching my son.

    The other thing that makes this program less “suspicious” than any of the other myriads of choices out there is the fact that the price is very reasonable, and when you’re done, you’re done. The other thing that convinced me, is that I have to work at it, and my child has to work at it. This is not the “magic pill” that we are all looking for, but aside from the gains I am already seeing in my son, Brain Highways has given me activities I can do with him that are fun, when before I had no idea how to relate to him aside from “care and feeding.”

    Let me say a word about Nancy Green, who runs the program and who I didn’t even know eight weeks ago. Because my son is so disabled he couldn’t stay in the free screening session we brought him to—he was crying and flailing his head and we had to take him outside. Nancy, who had many other families to look after that night, came outside with us and within thirty seconds had him calmed down. Then she looked me in the eye and said, “I want you to know, I LOVE working with kids like your son. I don’t want you to feel pushed out.” She made arrangements for me to bring him in for private instruction to prepare him for the group class. I was skeptical that he would ever be able to be in the group but I was desperate. When we started working with her she had my son do things that I never thought he was capable of, and last week he started participating in the group class!!

    Nancy has a deep compassion for kids and families and sees all kids as “Champions”, and they respond to that. She has taught us how to teach my own child, when although I have three other grown children, I had no idea how to get through to this one. One of the most amazing things she did was to invite a more typical BH kid to come early and befriend and motivate my son. It was miraculous how my son suddenly responded to this little boy he had never met before!

    I don’t totally understand how neuroplasticity works, but it’s working! It sounds trite, but BH has changed my son’s and my life. Please go to brainhighways.com and look at the video called “Same Story, Different Outcome” on the Special Needs tab. This video features seven autistic kids who are now verbal, functional, creative and living wonderful lives. Also, please check out the Brain Highways facebook page. You can find my comments and photos there; feel free to send me a message if you have any questions. I am extremely private but I am sticking my neck out because I want everyone with an autistic or learning disabled child to know about Brain Highways.

    Anyone who runs into me hears about Brain Highways, and in fact five of my friends have signed up for the next session based on my recommendation. No, I do not get any compensation for this–I am just overwhelmed by the changes I have seen in my son, which I never hoped were possible. We have only put in 20 hours of the floor work he needs so we are at the very beginning of the process. The small gains I listed here are just the tip of the iceberg.

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Why Parents Need to Know About Neuroplasticity

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