How the Feldenkrais Method can Benefit Children with Autism
Amber Adams, GCFP
Amber Adams, GCFP
SenseAbility Issue 66
Parents are often surprised and confused to hear that the Feldenkrais Method®—a system of movement education—can be helpful for children with autism. If their child doesn’t have visible motor skill delays, they can’t see why improving their movement is necessary, nor why it would impact a condition that is primarily social and behavioral.
Although Feldenkrais® practitioners could never claim to “cure” autism, we are able to help with many of the symptoms of autism that contribute to family, academic, and social stress.
Three ways the Feldenkrais Method can help those with autism:
- Sensory processing challenges
- Meltdowns, tantrums, and emotional overwhelm
- Repetitive Behavior
A large percentage of autistic children struggle with sensory processing challenges. It could show up as an aversion to touch or clothing, an unwillingness to eat foods with certain textures, or an inability to cope with noisy environments. These sensory sensitivities can cause a lot of stress to both the child and the family, and fuel fears about the child’s ability to attend school, make friends, or eat enough nutrients to be healthy. But how are movement lessons supposed to help with this?
Imagine that you could process the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue, but you couldn’t distinguish the shades in between. This means that you couldn’t see secondary colors (purple, orange, green). In order to see those colors, you need to be able to distinguish the difference between totally yellow, totally blue, and yellow-blue (green).
Now imagine walking through a forest, surrounded by all the green trees and grass. Without the ability to distinguish yellow-blue (green) from blue or yellow, how would the forest look to you? You might see the leaves as yellow. Or perhaps you would think they were blue. Or maybe some psychedelic combination of yellow and blue leaves. If you couldn’t tell the difference between “a lot of blue” and “only a little bit of blue”…well, the forest would look like a very different place. And not just different, but confusing. Without the ability to distinguish between all the subtle shades of color, it would be hard to tell where one leaf ended and another began. It would even be hard to tell where the blue sky ended and the “blue” trees began. If you can’t sense the difference, then everything seems the same.
This ability to sense the subtle difference between one stimulus and another is called “differentiation.” In the Feldenkrais Method, we improve the differentiation of movement and body sensation (rather than color vision, in the analogy above). Practitioners use gentle touch and tiny movements to help your child learn to sense the subtle difference between one sensation in their body and another. This requires the child’s nervous system to make very fine distinctions between what’s easier, and what’s less easy.
Unlike traditional physical therapy, the Feldenkrais Method is not about improving strength or flexibility. Instead, the Feldenkrais Method focuses on refining the ease of a movement, and on helping your child sense where they are in space with greater clarity. This deep, subtle form of physical education sets them up for greater success with the strength and flexibility challenges that traditional physical therapy provides.
2. Meltdowns, tantrums, and emotional overwhelm
What causes meltdowns and tantrums? Every child has them as part of their learning and growing process, yet autistic children seem to be subject to these outbursts for much longer than their “neurotypical” peers. Being able to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention are all components of what is referred to as “self-regulation.” This process of self-mastery takes time for all children, but for autistic children it can be an even longer, more challenging process. In the meantime, their outbursts can create quite a strain on their family and teachers, alienate their peers, and even be potentially dangerous to themselves or others.
So how does the Feldenkrais Method help with self-regulation? To begin with, many of the “meltdowns” so common with autistic children are caused by their sensory challenges, as mentioned above. The Feldenkrais Method helps the sensory input make more sense, which in turn leads to less sensory overwhelm and fewer meltdowns.
Additionally, studies have shown that movement increases one’s ability to focus, learn, and regulate emotions. As a movement-based method, the Feldenkrais Method is a natural choice to help children learn to better regulate their bodies and emotions. The Feldenkrais Method improves posture and ease of movement. Most young children lack the language skills to express if they felt a subtle discomfort. And if it’s one they’ve always had, it will seem “normal” to them and they probably won’t think to mention it. Yet if a child is uncomfortable sitting due to subtle postural challenges, how easy will it be for her to sit still at school for long periods of time and pay attention? Instead, she’ll squirm, move, or act out because she’s distracted or overwhelmed by the “noise” from her own body. On the other hand, when you have a sense of grounded support and ease in your body, it’s hard to feel as anxious, flustered, or overwhelmed. So, improving your child’s posture and movements will give him a tangible, physical sense of emotional support as well.
3. Repetitive Behavior
One of the hallmark features of autism is a tendency toward repetitive, almost compulsive behavior. While these behaviors aren’t necessarily harmful, they do add to the social challenges that autistic children face. The repetitive, rather rigid insistence on playing in the “right” way can alienate peers, which in turn leads to parental concern about whether their child will ever make friends, date, marry, or be able to function in a workplace as they get older.
So how would Feldenkrais movement lessons help with rigid, repetitive behavior?
Behavior requires action. All action requires movement. The Feldenkrais Method interrupts existing habituated movement patterns, and introduces subtle alternative options. Once a movement pattern has been shifted even slightly, the resulting action loses its compulsiveness. It’s not until this compulsiveness has loosened that a new option for behavior can emerge. By discovering new options and new possible patterns of action, the child also becomes more open to variations in behavior. While he may always have strong preferences or deep, specific interests, the ability to be flexible instead of rigid will begin to emerge.
To summarize, while the Feldenkrais Method isn’t a “cure” for autism, it can help with many of the behavioral and sensory challenges that can cause autism to be stressful for a child and his or her family. This includes (but is not limited to) sensory processing challenges, meltdowns, and repetitive behavior. If your child has autism, the Feldenkrais Method is a very gentle way to increase sensory accuracy, shift repetitive behavior patterns, and decrease the frequency and duration of meltdowns and tantrums. To find a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm near you, visit our online directory.
Amber Adams is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner with years of experience in dance, martial arts, and full certification in Pilates. Through the Feldenkrais Method, she found ways to achieve effortless, powerful movement at an accelerated pace.
Having a natural ease with special needs children, Amber has been formally and informally working with them for most of her life. In addition to her four year Feldenkrais training, Amber has done another four years of advanced training as well as volunteering, where she helped children with attention deficit disorders, learning delays, autism, physical disabilities, and sensory integration issues improve their physical intelligence.
For more information about Amber, go to her website: http://www.sensorynexus.com
Graphic of boy: ©Footage Firm. Used with permission.
Photo of Amber: Eli Pritykin. Used with permission.
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8/15/2016 10:39:13 PM
My nephew who is 19 has a type of autisum, where he suffers from melt downs ehn he he is in a resturant or in crowds he will feel overwhelmed and ends up in tears hoping you can advise if anyone in melbourne is working with feldenkrais in this area
2/12/2016 4:09:43 PM
Nice article. Clear, to the point and understandable whether you have FM experience or not.