From Fixing to Connecting: Transform the Life of Your Child With Special Needs

A revolutionary approach gives new hope.
By Anat Baniel

Are you a parent to a child with special needs? Have you tried to help your child do something he or she can’t do, or corrected them over and over again to end up with little or no progress? Do both you and your child experience stress in the process of developing skills? When this stress happens, your child isn’t learning what you’re trying to teach them, but is likely learning what you do not want them to learn—the patterns that lead them to failure.

One of the most important discoveries I’ve found in the past 30 years of working with children with special needs (from autism to genetic disorders) is the amazing positive results that arise from a shift in attention from the child’s limitations to the child’s brain. Essentially, therapists and parents should focus on helping the child’s brain attain the information it requires to do new things.

To clarify what I mean by this, think of your brain as your CEO; it manages all that you do physically, emotionally, and intellectually. For a healthy child, as well as a child with special challenges, the information his or her “CEO” brain needs in order to learn a new task does not come from directly trying to perform and practice what it doesn’t yet have the ability to perform.

When I tell this to parents, they often ask with bewilderment in their voice, “But if I’m not going to put my child into a sitting or standing position, or keep repeating words they’re unable to speak, how are they ever going to learn to do these things?”

My answer to them is that children begin learning to sit, stand, or talk long before they can perform these skills. The necessary information for skills to form comes to the brain from many small and varied movements and experiences that may seem completely unrelated to the final accomplishment. With the healthy child, these movements are always within the range of what he or she can already do at the time. The brain of the child with special challenges requires the same process to be able to learn and thrive!

Here’s what we need to realize: for the brain to get all the information it requires to successfully learn how to organize movement, thought, and emotion depends on all of the child’s functions and capabilities working well to begin with. That includes muscles, bones, joints, and, of course, the brain itself.

So, for example, if the arm of an infant is not doing the typical movements appropriate for his or her age due to a nerve injury in that arm, the brain will not get the information it requires in order to learn to control that arm well, if at all.

Most people would try to “fix” that arm by stretching, stimulating, and exercising it with the hope that it will “learn” to do those movements on its own. Will imposing these movements on the arm result in the brain getting the information it requires to move that arm well on his or her own? Will trying to get the child to do what he or she cannot do provide the brain with the missing information? As counter intuitive as it may appear, the answer in most cases is that it won’t. It is too limited! The healthy infant does thousands upon thousands of small, highly varied movements that are not the final skill, such as holding a toy in their hands, before they properly use the toy.

The same is true for behavioral and cognitive challenges that, often, children diagnosed with attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism have. Trying to impose the final “correct” behavior will usually deny the brain the rich and varied information it needs in order to evolve the missing skills.

How can we provide the child’s brain with this flood of necessary information? First we need to back off from trying to “fix” the child and instead focus on connecting with him or her. The Anat Baniel Method, which evolved from a lifetime of hands-on work with thousands of children with special needs, provides the tools that help parents and caregivers connect with the child and wake up the child’s brain. When the child’s brain has been “woken up,” the child will be able to move from the once impossible to the possible.

This is not a magic or esoteric system, but is founded on scientific principles that have been repeatedly demonstrated by leading researchers all over the world. Science has shown how the brain possesses a remarkable ability to create alternative solutions to physical and mental disabilities when given proper information. Through the spontaneous process of differentiation (discerning increasingly finer differences), the brain creates billions upon billions of new neural connections. These are the connections that every child’s brain needs to figure out in order to learn how to stand, walk, talk, think, and do everything he or she will ever learn to do.

At the heart of the Anat Baniel Method is the Nine Essentials. Each Essential provides powerful tools to connect with the child and help the child’s brain transform limitation into new possibilities.

Teaching special needs children calls for creativity and, often, an indirect route in order to reach the end goal of accomplishing a task. By keeping the Nine Essentials in mind, parents can create an atmosphere of comfort and allow the existing, inner knowledge to be physically seen and appreciated. Connect with the child first, and let the inner workings of the brain initiate improvement in their own way and time.

 

The 9 Essentials

Essential 1: Movement With Attention

Movement is the language of the brain; it helps the brain grow and form. But movement alone, that is, passive or automatic movement, is not enough. It’s vital that the child pay attention to what he or she is feeling as they move. Movement without attention to the self only “grooves in” more deeply the already existing patterns, which often include the patterns of the child’s limitations.

Essential 2: The Learning Switch

A healthy child already has their “learning switch” on, while others take more time or need more help. The “learning switch” is a metaphor for the feeling of awareness and willingness to learn. Channel your curiosity and enthusiasm toward your child to encourage them to turn on their own “learning switch.”

Essential 3: Subtlety

Subtlety is both attention to detail and increased sensitivity. When you work with a special needs child, less intensity increases sensitivity and thus leads to the ability to perceive the fine differences. When fine differences are perceived, the brain makes new connections, develops, and literally builds itself.

Essential 4: Variation

Variation is necessary for the brain to develop properly. When a child’s daily activities become routine, they dull awareness and perception. Simply switching up the routine will help the child develop a new sense of awareness of their surroundings, and how their body functions in those particular surroundings.

Essential 5: Slow

Slow gets the brain’s attention. When you slow yourself and your child down, your child begins to feel what she or he is doing. This awareness floods the brain with information it needs in order to overcome limitation. Moving slowly takes practice, yet it is surprisingly simple. You’ll be amazed at the spontaneous changes that will occur. I have seen this simple practice produce miraculous breakthroughs thousands of times with children. Once your child learns to focus in this way, the process of change and growth tends to become self-perpetuating, just as it does with healthy children.

Essential 6: Enthusiasm

Don’t confuse enthusiasm with praise; enthusiasm is also positive reinforcement for progress made. Enthusiasm helps children develop meaning toward a particular task, that is, they will remember their goal or task.

Essential 7: Flexible Goals

As a parent, you set up expectations and goals for your child before they are even born. Discovering your child has special needs may upturn and change the goals you had in mind. Remember that every child is different—what may be an attainable goal for another child with a similar diagnosis may not work for yours. Embrace the unexpected stops, experiences, and detours that you may encounter along the way.

Essential 8: Imagination and Dreams

Think of the imagination and dreams as life’s preview. Encourage your child’s imagination and let them explore their dreams. When children imagine, they work out new possibilities and actions before performing them. Dreams also fuel creativity and further thought—both important aspects in reawakening the brain.

Essential 9: Awareness

When the child brings attention to what they’re doing and feeling as they move, something very different occurs: their brain wakes up and begins forming new connections at a staggering rate—1.8 million new connections per second! That is roughly 100 million new connections per minute. Whether you are the one moving your child, or your child is moving on her or his own, look for ways to have them attend to what they are feeling as they are moving.

 

What Defines a Special Needs Child?

“Special needs” is a large umbrella term for a number of conditions that affect learning, cognition, and movement. The conditions listed below typically belong to special needs children.

>> Medical issues such as heart defects, spina bifida, brain injury, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, and cancer.

>> Behavior issues such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder, and Tourette syndrome.

>> Developmental issues such as autism, Down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities.

>> Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and phobias.

>> Learning issues such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and Central Auditory Processing Disorder.