The happiness hormone - more importantly the COMMUNICATION hormone. Why did none of the professionals tell me about this when I first set out upon this autism adventure with my son?
In a way it's not surprising that I had to find out about this for myself, or rather - that I had to be shown it by two very different kinds of mentors from the professionals. Because as time went by I realised that many of not most of the 'pros' didnt know what the word 'autism' actually meant, despite working for years in the field, and so in a way how could they stumble upon anything connected with that meaning, when all their training was orienting them completely away from this golden, wonderful discovery.
Ok so what do I mean here about the meaning of the word. Most professionals, when I asked them what autism meant, would try to answer with a complex, meandering and often conflicting definition of many many sentences. But none got down to the actual semantics - that the word 'Auto' is Greek for the 'self.' Therefore Autism - selfism - therefore locked within the self - therefore the difficulty is the relationship with the exterior world.
I myself took a while just to get down to this simple nub, and when I did, a light bulb went on in my admittedly somewhat slow, blond brain,
Because by now, having followed the advice of Dr Temple Grandin, I had started to let my son Rowan lead the way, showing me kinetically, non verbally, that he wanted to be outside most of the time interacting with nature and riding with me on a horse called Betsy - the living being to whom I probably owe the biggest debt of my life.
When I rode with my son on Betsy, sharing the same saddle, he spoke. When we didnt ride, Rowan was echolalic at best. But in the saddle - all kinds of expressive speech followed.
But it mostly happened when we were in a certain kind of rhythm - very cadenced, with the horse's weight rocked back a little onto her haunches: what equestrians call 'collection' - the kind of movement you see in dressage.
I also noticed that speech followed when I pushed Rowan on a swing and, to a lesser extent on a trampoline or when dancing him around to reggae on my shoulders. Why? I began to ask scientists this question.
It was Dr Grandin - and after her several other scientists - Dr Robert Naviaux and Dr Allyson Muotri, both neuroscientists from University of California San Diego - who alerted me to the oxytocin connection.
What was happening, they explained, was that when Betsy was in these rhythms, Rowan's pelvis was being rocked rhythmically over a prolonged period.
When this happens to a human, they produce large amounts of oxytocin, which then travels up the Vagal nerve to the brain.
Why was this a good thing?
Because the oxytocin was first calming down Rowan's over-sensitive nervous system, and then telling his brain's over-active amygdala to shut down.
And why was that a good thing?
Again, Dr Grandin has already explained to me that people on the autism spectrum - and indeed with almost any neuro-psychiatric condition - have over-active amygdalas. That's the part of the brain that governs fight/flight and freeze. It makes the body produce a hormone called Cortisol whose job is to momentarily kill the brain cells that connect your reptilian brain with your intellect so that you wont be distracted by something else when there's a threat. This is what neuro-scientists call the Cell Danger Response. It keeps you alive.
But if you have an over-developed, over-active amygdala, then you produce so much cortisol that you cant access your intellect much of the time, and moreover, large amounts of cortisol being produced over a long time, rather than in short, occasional bursts, is toxic and can scar the brain.
What Betsy had produced, and what my own son was showing me worked, and what Dr Grandin and the other scientists had explained, was a way to turn off this over-active Cell Danger Response, while simultaneously calming the over-sensitive nervous system, opening up access to the intellect and - oxytocin's final gift - healing the damage done by too much cortisol.
We had stumbled into something amazing. Something that worked. Rowan was not just speaking, but reading, doing math, learning...
Fast forward to today - everything we do in both Horse Boy Method (our equine approach) and Movement Method (our kinetic learning program for parents and schools alike) starts with showing the practitioner or parent how to get this oxytocin effect going, and then capitalizing on the results.
So movements that rock the pelvis rhythmically - on horseback, on a swing, a yoga ball, your shoulders, a wheelbarrow (wheelbarrows are amazing for kinetic learning), trampolines, in a pool, rocking chairs...if you can maximize these in your kid's day, not just a few minutes here and there but hours of it. The communication that follows, and where it leads in terms of learning, the relationship with the exterior, neurotypical world...all I can say is we never looked back.
Who else out there has had a similar revelation?
To find out more on how to turn off the Cell Danger Response and open the gates to the intellect, take our online course.