Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Steering Clear for Bicycle Safety - A cautionary tale of retained ATNR in action

Walking in the park near my home the other day, I saw a very young child, maybe about two and a half years old, riding a tricycle as his mom walked alongside him. I was behind this pair, so I had a rear view of the child on the trike, just perfect for seeing the alarming event that unfolded so quickly:

The boy suddenly looked over to the right at a barking dog, and simultaneously steered to the left, almost straight into the oncoming traffic on this busy path. The mother said, “watch where you’re going!” which prompted the boy to look up at her (also to the right), and he kept turning left. A collision with an oncoming jogger was narrowly averted.

An onlooker might wonder, Didn’t he see that jogger coming at him? Didn’t he hear his mother? Didn’t he know how to steer? Was something wrong with the handlebar mechanism?

But I’d been behind this pair long enough to see that the boy could certainly steer the trike: he’d been neatly following the curves in this pathway. He didn’t swerve to the left until he looked to the right. Actually, if what I believe is true, he steered to the left because he looked to the right.

What? Steer to the left because you’re looking to the right? Yes. And all because of a retained infant reflex. Allow me to introduce Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR).

A bit about reflexes
During our newborn-to-early-choldhood years, we go through a continuum of “wiring” stages, intended by nature to leave us with ready patterns to call on when the time comes to move with skill and precision in specific ways. Doctors gauge the development of a young child by noting whether these reflexes are maturing appropriately. My book Educate Your Brain has an entire chapter on this topic, called “Wired for Ability.” And the definitive resource is Sally Blythe’s book Reflexes, Learning and Behavior – a window into the child’s mind.

Each reflex is intended to emerge, mature as it’s fully put to use, and then integrate into the overall system of wiring patterns. Then it’s a pattern available to be called on at will, rather than constantly operating on its own.

However – and this is a big However – sometimes this plan goes awry (due to such things as trauma in utero, stressful birthing, C-section or premature birth, infant surgery, illness, etc.) and the reflex continuum may go into what I call “suspended animation.”

When this happens, the physical body matures, but the neural system doesn’t, so the child looks (for example) eight years old, but his neural foundation is much younger – and so are his behaviors and abilities. As he grows, certain reflexes may appear, but not mature and then integrate, leaving him with vestiges of various reflexes, and baffling behaviors that may seem to defy his will to be otherwise. I call this being at the mercy of the “invisible puppeteer.” Perhaps this will be more understandable after I explain this particular reflex. But first, a few words about…

Four Movement Patterns
There are four main movement patterns that our body must learn: 
• spinal reaching: leading with the crown of the head (upright posture, and experiencing our spine as our central axis)
• homologous: moving arms (top of the body) independently from the legs (bottom of the body) 
• homolateral: moving the right arm and leg (right side of the body) independently from the left arm and leg (left side of the body)
• cross-lateral: moving right, left, top, and bottom together, in a coordinated way

Physically speaking, when we are wired for all of these patterns, we’re able to use them separately or in any combination, for skilled, selective, intentional movement. 

Cognitively speaking, each of these movement patterns is related to "wiring" that's happening in the brain, culminating (optimally) in whole-brain integration, so that the mind-body system can call at will on all its cognitive abilities, for success in receiving, processing, and expressing information required for learning: reading, memory, concentration, comprehension, and more. 

Here we’ll focus on the homolateral, or “one-sided,” pattern: being able to use one side of the body on its own, without engaging the other side. 
• Physically, we use this one-sided pattern when we do such things as pivot on one foot, or do something with one hand while the other hand is still, or does something else. 
• Cognitively, we use this pattern when we focus intensely on something that's "left-brained," such as math computation, phonics, or spelling; or "right-brained," such as creating stories or holding awareness of spatial orientation. 

As you can see, all these "one-sided" skills are important! The issue arises when a person is stuck in the homolateral state, and cannot shift from (for example) story writing, to figuring out how to spell an unfamiliar word, and back to story writing again. Cross-lateral integration is needed for that. People with a retained ATNR will, by definition, be stuck in a homolateral state, and won't be able to easily do this kind of shifting. We'll get to solutions later; for now, let's look at how we develop this very necessary one-sided patterning.  

Building Homolateral Patterns through ATNR
Nature has worked out how to develop this “one-side-at-a-time” pattern in the infant, by having it go through the “Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex” (ATNR) period, essentially through about the sixth month after birth.

During this period, when the infant is on her back and turns her head to the left (for example), her left arm and leg automatically extend, and her right arm and leg automatically flex. This is not a choice the baby is making, it is a compulsive movement, driven by the reflex present in her system: Turn head to the left, left arm and leg extend, right arm and leg flex. Automatically. No
Baby in ATNR position
choice. Then, when the infant turns her head to the right, the whole process happens in reverse:
Turn head to the right, right arm and leg extend, and left arm and leg flex. Click here to see a video that shows this in action.

By about the sixth month after birth, this repeated motion will have laid down the wiring that allows the right arm and leg to move independently from the left arm and leg. At this point, its work now done, the reflex should then “integrate,” or “retire.” When this happens, the infant will be able to turn her head in any direction, without automatic movement of her arms and legs.1  

Now – back to the child on the tricycle
The boy I observed that day steered accurately, as long as he was looking straight forward. As soon as he turned his head to the right, his right arm straightened and left arm flexed. When the right hand is on the handlebars, and that arm straightens, it pushes the right handlebar forward, which steers the tricycle to the left.

This is a recipe for disaster. I firmly believe that many bike accidents are the result of retained ATNR at work. Let’s envision a child riding along in the bike lane, between traffic and parked cars. He turns his head to the right to see something interesting or important, and reflexively steers to the left – and out into traffic. Or, he turns his head to the left to watch out for traffic – and steers into the cars parked on the street.

Claire Hocking, the instructor for the first Brain Gym® course I took that deals with resolving retained reflexes, told the story of her own experience with retained ATNR. Through some very scary experiences, she had learned never to turn her head while driving, or she’d steer unpredictably; she made herself always sit with her head tensely forward. Once she discovered that this was because of a retained ATNR, and figured out how to resolve the reflex in her own body, she found that she could turn her head in any direction and still steer straight down the road: her head turning no longer elicited an automatic movement of her arms. This became an entire field of study for her, and now she’s taught thousands of adults around the world to work with her techniques. 

Nature’s resolution for ATNR
In the natural course of things, children move their way through the reflex continuum. At the end of the ATNR stage, the STNR emerges: Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex. (I’ve written an article about it, which you can find here.) STNR is the reflex that prompts the baby to rise from a tummy-down position to an all-fours position, in preparation for crawling.

And it’s this stage of crawling, which requires coordinated use of both sides of the brain simultaneously, that supports the development of cross-lateral patterning. Some reflex specialists believe that infant crawling may actually contribute significantly to "retiring" the reflexive ATNR pattern. You see how interrelated all these reflexes are!

Cross-lateral patterning is vitally important for all kinds of academic and coordination tasks. And a child will never be truly cross-lateral if he’s still “stuck” in the ATNR stage.

However, some children never crawl, or crawl for only a limited amount of time, or in an “odd” way. This may be because of more significant reflex issues, a home environment that isn't safe for crawling, or simply because their parents did not put them tummy-down for play. (A baby must experience abundant tummy time to be in the right position for the STNR to kick in and get him up on all fours, so he can eventually crawl.)

If a child has never crawled, it’s possible that he never moved his way from homolateral (ATNR) to natural cross-lateral patterning, where he’s able to call on both brain hemispheres simultaneously.

This may cause numerous challenges as he matures, as he struggles with actions or tasks that require the use of both sides of the body (or both sides of the brain) at the same time: Reading. Tying shoes. Doing “story” problems in math. Spelling while writing a story. Catching a ball with both hands. Running in a coordinated way. Doing anything in the space right in front of him, involving both eyes and one or both hands.

And riding a bike without reflexively steering into traffic or parked cars.

And this is just the beginning.

So – what can you do?
If your child has coordination or learning issues of any kind it’s possible that a good movement-based program will provide the help you’re looking for.

You may find that working with a nearby Licensed Brain Gym® Instructor is a tremendous help; and many have taken specialized training in addressing infant reflex issues. Even without specialized reflexes training, a Brain Gym instructor will be able to guide your child through movements and processes that will support a level of integration that will make life easier for him. And you may be interested to know that one particular Brain Gym process, Dennison Laterality Repatterning, typically has the outcome of supporting the learner in taking on a natural cross-lateral pattern very quickly - sometimes in a single session. 

In my own practice I’ve worked with many people – children and adults alike – who found that an infant reflex was at the core of an issue they were addressing. Once the reflex was resolved, the “issue” was no longer there, as focus, attention, comprehension, or coordination would begin to manifest, once the “invisible puppeteer” for that reflex had been retired.

The Cross Crawl
Something you can do on your own that may very well help in the case of ATNR is the Brain Gym® movement called the Cross Crawl. This movement helps the learner develop the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time, in the same way that infant crawling does. 

It would be good to practice it yourself, first. Standing, raise one knee and bring the opposite elbow over to it. Lower that arm and leg; raise the other knee and connect with its opposite elbow. Repeat this, back and forth, for a minute or so. Once you’re familiar with this pattern, you can invite your child to join you, “just for fun.”

If you see your child exhibiting confusion about how to bring the right arm to the left knee (for example), resist the temptation to “correct” him, at least at first. Allow him to experience the movement, and to compare what he’s doing with what you’re doing; he may very well figure it out on his own (self-noticing and self-correction is always the most powerful form of learning).

If confusion persists, you can begin by “motoring” your child through this movement, perhaps while he’s seated in a chair or lying on the floor. Repetition over time will very likely make this movement smoother and easier. Put on some music, and make it fun! And be sure to do this with your child, in the spirit of play.2

All this said, supporting a child in achieving a smooth Cross Crawl movement does not guarantee that an active ATNR will no longer be an issue. If you believe this reflex is still causing challenges, you may want to seek some support, as I described, above.

I would like to see all children become skilled bike riders, able to enjoy looking at the world around them while still steering straight down the road. Let’s make sure that their mind-body systems are integrated enough for this to be a safe and fun activity!

With all best wishes,

Click here for a link to the website for my book
Educate Your Brain
1 - Here I'll (again) express my concern that babies kept for extended periods of time in car seats are not getting the amount of time they need to freely move their body. This may prevent them from fully engaging the reflexes they're supposed to be going through. In my estimation, this practice runs the risk of actually creating learning disabilities. 
2 - And, of course, there are 26 Brain Gym movements, each of which has its own special way of supporting the mind-body system in becoming more integrated. If this interests you, I recommend buying a copy of the book Brain Gym® Teacher’s Edition.

Copyright© 2014 by Kathy Brown. All rights reserved. 
Photo of child on tricycle Copyright©  All rights reserved. 
Photos of child in ATNR position and doing the Cross Crawl Copyright© 2012 Laird Brown Photography. All rights reserved. 
Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of Brain Gym® International • Ventura, California •

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