A couple of days ago I blogged about how we taught Rob to put together simple sentences by lots of repetition and modeling. I promised to tell you why that worked. So, here we go.
How the brain processes information
Anything that we hear, see, feel, touch, or taste in our environment is called a sensation. Sensations are picked up by receptors (located in our eyes, ears, skin, muscles, etc.) and are changed into electrical impulses that travel through the nerve fibers to the brain.
Electrical impulses travel from one neuron to the next via “bridges” called synapses. An infant is born with most of the neurons he or she will ever have. (About 12 billion of them!) However, at birth, there are very few synapses between the neurons.
Every time a child has a “sensory experience” (is exposed to things like light, touch, sound, movement) new synapses are created. The more of these neural connections a person has, the more capable of learning he is.
Once inside the brain, the electrical impulses are sorted, organized, combined with other pieces of sensory input and then put to use. Over 80% of the nervous system is involved in processing or organizing sensory input. It’s a very complicated process.
Behavior and learning are the visible expression of the invisible activity going on inside the brain. When the visible expression does not produce the outcome we expect, (in Rob’s case, he couldn’t answer “My name is Rob”, even though we knew he knew the answer) we know that the neural messages are not crossing the synapse “bridges” they should, but are getting lost somewhere.
Forming strong synapses
As the neural messages are forming new pathways across the synapses, it takes about 75 millivolts of electricity to get the brain’s neurons to fire. In order to form strong neural pathways, an activity must be done repeatedly. (Which is why children naturally like to read the same book, sing the same nursery rhyme, or play with the same toy ad nauseum. They are creating well-formed synapses.) Eventually, the energy required to fire a brain’s neurons is significantly less.
Additionally, the brain likes and looks for patterns – it doesn’t have to work as hard when it recognizes a pattern. Patterns are also one of the brain’s primary ways to process new information – it looks for information it already knows to “make new information fit.”
A disorganized brain
During the first 7 years of life, a brain’s primary job is to process and organize sensory information. When sensations are not being well-organized, it’s like a traffic jam inside the brain. Language is one of the more complicated functions of the brain, and so more neurons are required to transmit the messages.
It is very common for children with sensory integration disorders to have language development problems. Remember, behavior and learning are the visible expression of the invisible activity going on inside the brain.
Pam (Rob’s Speech Therapist) thought that Rob had some sort of auditory processing disorder – which in its simplest definition means that his ears and brain didn’t coordinate. He couldn’t be tested until he was school-aged, so we didn’t know for sure.
However, Pam did know that if we could model the language patterns (over and over and over again), he could learn them. I know now we were somehow helping the synapses to form – we were helping his brain to become organized. And it worked.
Are we done yet?
I was hoping that speech therapy would fix whatever was wrong. I was pregnant with my third child by this point. I was homeschooling my oldest, going to speech therapy twice a week, running a new business (Studio3Music), and throwing up multiple times every day. (For 9 long months.) I didn’t have time for all of this!
But there was still something not quite right. I was horrified when one day Pam suggested that maybe Rob would do well in a “special-needs” school. Her gut instincts told her we were missing a piece to the puzzle, but she didn’t know what it was. She then suggested that we have Rob evaluated by an OT. (Occupational Therapist), as he seemed a little “floppy”.
Now seriously, I thought OT’s were for people who had had strokes or bad car accidents. So I turned to a trusted friend – the one person other than my husband who knew Rob almost as well as I did – Miss Allison, Rob’s Kindermusik teacher. At this point, Allison didn’t know much about sensory integration (she sure does now!), but she knew a lot about kids.
Rob was doing a 5 day Kindermusik camp that summer, and was just moving up to the next level – where attended most of class without me. He was having a very had time with this transition, but we were working through it. I’d hand him over to Allison with a kiss and a hug, and then listened to him howl from out in the hall. (But this is a very important part of the development process, so we worked through it. By the end of the week, he was transitioning just fine, and loving being with a peer learning group.)
Allison said that when I handed Rob into her arms, she expected that he would go stiff and fight her, as a child his age would normally do. But instead, he would go floppy. Based on that little piece of information that matched what Pam said, we made an appointment with an OT. We had no idea what to expect.
-posted by Miss Analiisa, who will introduce you to the wonderous Miss Vicki next time.