Do you remember back in school when you crammed and crammed for that physics exam or that oral about Shakespeare’s big toe, or Julius Caesar’s left buttock (in Latin of course), got it down so that you could spout the thing verbatim, and then, literally the moment you walked out of the exam – POOF!
The knowledge was gone.
I experienced this a lot. Short term memorizing of things just to get from one academic cliff ledge to another but with none of it sticking in my (admittedly blond) brain. Latin was actually a good example actually – I recall maybe three words out of the whole four years I studied it. But I do remember very vivdly being beaten by the Latin master (I was one of the last generation of British schoolchildren to be regularly beaten).
Talk about experiential learning.
There are many wrong ways to learn – but we all know from experience that when we ‘do’ something, it tends to stick in the old noggin. And when we have to 'do' that thing outside in nature while really moving, then the skill set really tends to stick, which is why those corporate team building games work so well.
There are a lot of reasons why this kind of kinetic learning is so effective. Basically we are hunting and gathering apes, designed to constantly move and problem solve while co operating in groups. Western academics like to talk about our hunter and gatherer ‘ancestors’ as if they were back with the dinosaurs or something. Sitting in their Western university offices they forget that a fair proportion of the people on the planet still actually live as hunter gatherers and herders – and that even urbanized cultures like our own only moved away from their original ways about 10,000 years ago, meaning that we spent about 190.000 years hunting and gathering and only a small sliver of time by comparison living through agriculture and industry. So our brains and nervous systems still prefer to learn the old way.
So what has this got to do with autism ?
Well, if coercive learning techniques such as exam cramming or being forced to 'comply' though fear of a punishment, whether physical or emotional (and fearing the humiliation of getting something wrong is a pretty powerful fear), then you call into play that pesky Amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for fight/flight and freeze, which causes the body to create cortisol, the hormone that kills brain cells in order to black access to the intellect when there is a threat.
Most neuro-typical people can cope sufficiently with this stress to get through an appointed task, but its short term learning only, and doesn’t stick. For people on the autism spectrum, most of whom have over-developed amygdalas and who already produce too much cortisol, being coerced, effectively scared into learning something or imitating an 'appropriate; social cue, can shut them down completely. Worse, the overload of cortisol can actually scar the brain.
So we know that following a child’s interests, taking an empathetic approach, make any child, indeed any person, learn better. We also know that if you can add to that movements that rhythmically rock the pelvis (think yoga balls, swings, sitting on a horse, on someone’s shoulders, in a wheelbarrow) create oxytocin, which gets rid of cortisol and begins to actually repair the damage done by the scarring of too much cortisol. And we learned last week that moving while problem solving also activates the cerebellum which not only controls both motor and social skills, but also produces the strangely named purkinje cells that act as a communication network within the brain, getting the different parts of the brain to connect with each other properly, and which in turn activates our logic and reason center – the pre frontal cortex.
Great – but then why doesn’t that knowledge then just slip away? I mean, when I was at school not all my teachers were abusive (just many of them, sadly) and some subjects I actively enjoyed, yet much of what I learned still lasted only a very short time.
This is where the Vestibular System makes its grand entrance. When you have to move and problem solve while learning, the knowledge tends to stay in your head. Not just because of the effect on the cerebellum,
What is the most most normal way to move and problem solve? To balance. of course.
Now, many of you know that my son Rowan became verbal while in the saddle with me - verbal and then literate and then numerate. At the time I thought this was something special to horses, but very soon I found that I got similar reactions during extensive periods on the trampoline, or hiking over rough country, or when taking him on my shoulders.
What the neuro-scientists I began talking with pointed out was that what was special about the hip rocking on the horse was that it was producing oxytocin, the happiness and communication hormone. But what they also said was that all these other balancing – effectively problem solving – activities we were doing were stimulating not just the cerebellum but also the vestibular system, which has to do with balance, but also much more importantly – attention.
Put simply, because when you balance you pay great attention to things, if you learn stuff while bouncing and climbing and other kinds of balancing activities, you are suddenly in the ideal position to not just receive information, but retain it. Sometimes this can be a stressful thing. But if you add empathy, nature and the rocking movements that create oxytocin, it becomes a blissful experience. And it stays in the head.
So that’s why experiential, kinetic learning works so well – most especially if it’s done while moving in nature - because simply keeping ones balance on a trail, let alone while riding a horse or swinging or climbing or jumping – all put our vestibular system into high action duty.
The vestibular system resides in the inner ear. Diseases of the inner ear such as Meniere’s Disease which causes vertigo and crippling nausea, attack the vestibular system and shut the intellect down completely. People who have had such disorders can empathize very well with the hell a young autistic person has to go through during a neuro-sensory meltdown.
So get out of the classroom, the therapy room, the clinical environment, and go to the playground, the woods. If your therapist refuses to work in such an environment – won’t do their thing with you child on a trampoline or while running or splashing or swinging – fire that person and engage one who will. Because all the science is in agreement now that movement is essential to long term learning.
Childhood is short. As parents we don’t have a lot of time. Kids know what they need. Kids know they need to move in order to learn. Only engage the educators that understand this. And if that educator or therapist don’t understand the brain and nervous system, don’t know about the Cell Danger Response, cortisol and oxytocin, the cerebellum and purkinje cells, then the question is why not? If their own training didn’t include it, fair enough, but curiosity costs nothing and anyone can reach out to and read the latest studies of the neuro- scientists. After all, if one works in the field, one ought to be curious. Otherwise for we parents bringing our children for ‘therapy’, it’s a bit as if we brought our vehicle into the mechanic for an oil change and the mechanic looked at us oddly and said: “oil?”
So it’s easy – ask your prospective therapist/mentor what their strategies are around these areas of the brain including the vestibular system and how it works for long term learning. Ask them to do their thing outside, bouncing, skipping, swinging, rocking…balancing. After a month, see what the difference is.