Healing Our Children with Attentional, Emotional, and Learning Challenges - Page 2

Author // Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP

Article Index
Healing Our Children with Attentional, Emotional, and Learning Challenges
Page 2
All Pages

If a child’s sense of touch is not fully integrated, which can happen after a rapid vaginal birth, a C-section delivery, or the use of suction forceps, then the child will be hypersensitive and sometimes even hyposensitive to tactile stimulation. These are the children who want the labels removed from the back of their clothing or want their socks turned inside out so they don’t feel the seams. They often don’t like wearing long pants, long sleeves or jackets because they constantly feel the wrinkling of the fabric against their skin when they move their arms or legs. Their scalp is hypersensitive and they don’t like their hair brushed or combed. They don’t like their nails being clipped. These are the children who often withdraw from a group of peers and appear shy because they are afraid of being inadvertently touched by another child and that touch can sometimes feel like a hit or slap. Sometimes these children appear aggressive, hitting other children in what they perceive as self-defense after being “touched” or “bumped” into by another child. It is as if this gentle “touch” or “bump” is magnified 100 times.

In general, children with any of these sensory integration issues will often have difficulties with peer relationships. Their minds and eyes are too busy just trying to help them maintain balance, figure out where they are in space, and avoid bumping into other people and objects. These children are multi-tasking, and they do not have the luxury or the freedom of their minds and thinking to pay attention to the subtle nonverbal cues of other children around them. Since communication is mostly nonverbal, their peer relationships suffer.

In addition, because these same children with one or more sensory integration difficulties are always multi-tasking, their nervous system is constantly stressed. These children live in their “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system just to survive each day. Children who predominately function with a stressed nervous system are not in the present moment. They can’t pay attention or focus on just one stimulus at a time because their survival depends upon being able to pay attention to many different things in their body and in their environment all at the same time. These are the children that are often labeled as being hyperactive. Their pupils are often dilated, their hands and feet are often cool, they are hypervigilant and easily distracted, they are hypersensitive to sounds, and they have difficulty focusing their attention. Their movements are jerky and mechanical and their digestion is compromised. They also are extremely sensitive to the effects of sugar and caffeine and have temper tantrums and meltdowns throughout the day. A mind that is stressed is functioning in survival mode. In this survival state, a child can’t access higher centers of learning, and therefore new pathways and neurological connections are not easily formed.

Labels like ADD, ADHD, speech and language disorders, learning disabilities, and the autistic spectrum disorders may actually represent an increasing severity of sensory integration dysfunction. A child labeled with ADD has a poorly integrated proprioceptive system and this may also create visual processing disorders. A child labeled with auditory processing problems, especially if they forget what they are supposed to do when moving their body, may have vestibular difficulties. A child labeled with autism will have severe impairment of their proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile systems in addition to having a weak metabolism and, potentially, a “leaky” intestinal tract.

When a child has had a history of frequent antibiotic use (especially in the first two years of life), a diet high in simple sugars, or has undergone lots of stress, then he or she may be missing most of the healthy intestinal bacteria. The intestine may now be overgrown by yeast organisms which cause inflammation and loss of integrity of the intestinal wall. Now partially digested proteins from various foods, including soy, gluten from wheat, and casein from milk, are absorbed through the inflamed, leaky intestinal wall instead of being eliminated with bowel movements. These partially digested proteins are now broken down inside the body and their toxic by-products can cross the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system, affecting speech centers and other sensitive areas of the brain.

So, what can be done to help and heal our children’s nervous systems? First, I support rhythmic, harmonious, non-competitive movement activities like walking, hiking, and swimming. I support movement therapies that strengthen balance, proprioception, and touch. These movement therapies that help integrate the child’s sensory system must be gentle and slow. Care must be taken not to further activate the sympathetic (“stress”) nervous system. If the movement therapies are done too quickly or too competitively, then pathways can’t form. The child needs to be relaxed, utilizing the parasympathetic nervous system in order to make new pathways. The child needs to be fully engaged in the moment, full of love and enthusiasm for what he or she is doing. Movement therapies cannot be done like a recipe or from a list. The therapist needs to be present to the child’s movement and fully engaged with the child in a loving way so that child can relax, move, and create neuro-pathways. Next, it is time to stop medicating our children with stimulants. These stimulant medications may dampen or inhibit pathways competing for a child’s attention, but we still don’t know what these drugs do to that child’s future capacity for learning.

I also support an educational environment that teaches our children about the world using all of their senses including vision, hearing, and especially hands-on learning experiences. Our culture and even some educational institutions, with their reliance on television, computers, and video games for teaching, are not developing our children’s minds and senses. Competitive sports for the very young child over-stimulate and activate the “stress” nervous system. Sugar-filled foods, a lack of essential omega-3 fatty acids (found in cod liver oil, fish, walnuts, flax seed oil, algae, dark green leafy vegetables, and breast milk), inadequate sleep, a sedentary lifestyle (where children ride in cars instead of walking) are all making it hard for children’s neurological pathways to be myelinated and formed. In addition, toxins in our environment, including mercury in some of our vaccinations, also may affect these sensitive pathways.

It is time to stop labeling our children and putting them on medications that alter their neuro-hormone levels. It is time to slow down and focus on being in the present moment. It is time to promote a healthy lifestyle including nutritious foods, adequate sleep, and turning off televisions, videos, and computers. It is time to provide lots of healthy rhythmic movement activities for our children to do at home, in school, and out in nature. It is time to start healing our children.

Pathways Issue 21 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #21.

View Author Bio.

To purchase this issue, Order Here.