A simple way to help the brain change itself

By Alive & Well

I often hear people talk about the importance of early intervention for neurodevelopmental challenges.

Everyone with a child with Autism, for example, is encouraged to start therapies as quickly — and as full-time — as possible.

While I know it’s valuable to create an environment in which children with Autism can learn and thrive, too much of a sense of urgency places overwhelming pressure on parents to load their child up with therapies all day, every day of the week. It can also preclude the child from creating their own play and ideas, a crucial part of their development.

Fortunately, we now know that the window of opportunity does not close at age 6, or 8, or 10, or later. Dr Norman Doidge, internationally renowned psychiatrist and medical researcher, outlined this in his fantastic book The Brain That Changes Itself.

The book describes the neuroscience that emerged in the late 20th century proving that the brain adapts and changes throughout life, well into old age. When this idea was first introduced some decades ago, it was considered revolutionary, almost heretical, and the scientists who documented it were ostracized for their observations. Mainstream medicine had long held the view that the brain stopped developing sometime after childhood, but the idea that it continues to grow throughout life is without question now.

So we now know that we can make new neurological connections daily, if we are given the opportunity to do so.

Scientists call this ‘neuroplasticity’ and it’s particularly helpful for people recovering from injuries/strokes or adapting to new jobs. It helps us cope when life circumstances shake us up. And it is no different for our children with Autism — they can and will develop new neurological connections given supportive, enriched environments.

Training the brain and the body together

There are a number of ways to encourage neuroplasticity and growth, and one approach that I love — that has been successful for my family and many people I know — is HANDLE, which stands for Holistic Approach to NeuroDevelopmental Learning Efficiency.  This approach is predicated on the fact that neurodevelopmental irregularities are the root cause of many difficulties, and that the behaviour exhibited by someone with these challenges tells useful information.

For many people with Autism, neurodevelopmental challenges are often manifested in their sensory hyper- or hypo- sensitivity to experiences like sound and wind, difficulty with coordinated eye tracking, that ‘ants-in-pants’ feeling and fine motor skills.

All of these issues can be significantly improved with the HANDLE method.

Gentle, everyday exercises that stimulate growth

Crazy StrawHANDLE helps each person reach or regain their abilities (and develop new ones) with an individualised program of simple, organised movement activities. For our son, this included exercises like sucking water through a crazy straw every day to train his eyes to track together, which helped make eye contact a much less uncomfortable experience. We also discovered that my oldest son, who is ‘neurotypical’, had his own eye-tracking issue, which was why he wasn’t loving reading so much. That’s fixed now too.

As the brain gradually reorganises, integrates and develops, HANDLE activities can be adapted to target the next challenge.

It’s an easy, fun, non-judgmental way to help children develop new neurological pathways without loading the family up with a program of therapies that leaves everyone exhausted — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.

So next time you’re giving yourself pressure about your child’s program, take a moment to remember that they will continue to grow and develop, that giving them downtime time is important too, and consider how something as simple as HANDLE can help your child to keep progressing.

Have you worked with HANDLE? What other therapies have you come across that are easy to implement?