HOW DOES NEUROLOGICAL REORGANIZATION ADDRESS ATTACHMENT DISORDERS?
By Emily Beard BA, CD, Asst Assoc of ECE, Neurological Reorganization Practitioner
Any type of attachment disorder, such as reactive attachment disorder or anxious attachment, interferes with an individual’s ability to form appropriate relationships and feel safe, secure, and worthy to be in the world. While this can be devastating, neurological reorganization can address and resolve the underlying neurological conditions contributing to these diagnoses, so that the behaviors associated with RAD can decrease and the effected individual can gain the skills to form lasting and strong relationships, and feel safe, secure, and worthy to be in the world.
Attachment spectrum disorders primarily affect the part of the brain called the pons. The pons typically develops between one to five months of age and is responsible for all vital, life-preserving function, including respiration and heart rate. It identifies threats to our safety and regulates the response to those threats. Because the pons develops in very young infants, it is pre-verbal and pre-logical, so you cannot speak to it with language or logic. Typically developing infants complete a specific sequence of developmental tasks (called the developmental sequence) to establish healthy pons function. These include crawling on the tummy (similar to the combat crawl), sensory stimulation, vestibular experience, and specific, whole body reflexes. Completion of the developmental sequence allows the infant to gain an array of skills that have sweeping implications for her later emotional, behavioral, academic, and motor development. Visually, a pons-level infant loves to gaze at the outline of faces and into another human’s eyes. Gazing into another’s eyes, especially her biological mother’s, establishes a sense of safety and security. Indeed, babies’ initial vision extends from mother’s breast to mother’s eyes, because this function is so critical. Recent research has validated the importance of oxytocin, a hormone released in both mothers and babies, during this sustained eye contact. Pons-level infants develop horizontal eye tracking so that they track their caregivers coming and going in their environment. In terms of auditory and sensory perception, a pons-level infant identifies threats. Any loud or threatening sound, such as a dog barking, causes the baby to cry for help. Similarly, this baby feels extremes of heat, cold, hunger, and pain and, upon feeling any of those, cries for help. A pons-level infant perceives the world in terms of black and white: “I’m not with Mom, I’m going to die; I’m hungry, I’m going to die; I’m cold, I’m going to die,” and, upon experiencing these sensations, releases a vital cry that communicates, “Help me! Help me! I’m dying!” Crying is the way this baby exerts control over her environment and is assured by her primary caregiver that her needs will be met. This assurance that her needs will be met when she cries is also how she begins to feel safe, secure, and bonded. To insure healthy pons function, it is critical that an infant completes this entire developmental sequence. Any gap in the developmental sequence can result in impaired neurology and later behavioral, emotional, academic, or motor problems.
Pons-level dysfunction occurs when the infant’s needs are not adequately met and/or her ability to complete the developmental sequence is restricted. An infant’s inability to grow these connections and develop healthy pons function stems from a number of issues, most notably a separation from her biological mother, but can also include abuse, neglect, chronic stress, illness, and physical inability to complete the development sequence, such as excessive time spent in a crib. At this point of development, the infant believes that she and her biological mother are a single unit. Any prolonged separation triggers the fight or flight response in the infant, flooding her with high levels of neurochemicals, such as cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine. The infant’s neurology accommodates this toxic level of stress hormones; her brain literally behaves as if it is threatened at all times. Consequently, even when the individual’s needs are met at some point in the future, normal function may not occur, because the correct neural pathways to support healthy pons function are absent. No amount of nurturing will lead to normal neurological function due to this faulty wiring. The only way for healthy pons function to occur is to directly stimulate it through replication of the developmental sequence. This is why children who did not get their needs met adequately as infants can act as if they are in a life-threatening situation, even when they are in a nurturing, loving environment: their behavior is propelled by dysfunctional neurology, not their current circumstances. This ferocity of this disproportionate response to their current environment and circumstances is what characterizes the behaviors typical of RAD and other attachment disorders.
Neurological reorganization addresses the underlying structural dysfunction so that normal function can occur. Rather than teaching the child coping mechanisms or other cortical behavioral modification, neurological reorganization changes the underlying neurological functionality that contributes to these issues. It gets to the root of the issue, rather than acting as a band-aid to attempt to mitigate the behaviors. After assessing the neurological deficits using a functional neurological exam (which elicits reflexes from the foundational layers of the brain and, hence, is non-invasive and non-threatening for children), a neurological reorganization practitioner designs a program of neurodevelopmental activities that stimulate the damaged or absent neural pathways. Because of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change, this stimulation is effective at any age. These neurodevelopmental activities are a replication of the developmental sequence that should have put healthy functionality in place for the individual as an infant and include crawling on the tummy, creeping on hands and knees, sensory stimulation, vestibular stimulation, and specific, whole body reflexes. The gross motor component of the developmental sequence (creeping and crawling) should never be taught, because, if they are taught, we alter cortical function, rather than pons-level functionality. Just as an infant is not taught how to creep and crawl, if an individual is given the right input, the changes in her gross motor skills will develop all on their own. Other movement-based therapies (such as occupational therapy, HANDLE, RMT, and Brain Gym) include components of the developmental sequence, but neurological reorganization is the only therapy that replicates the entire developmental sequence. It is this replication of the whole developmental sequence that allows the new brain connections to form and, hence, all of the behaviors associated with dysfunctional neurology to subside.
Because a program of neurological reorganization involves replicating the developmental sequence, it is done primarily at home on a daily basis. This makes it accessible to many people, regardless of their proximity to a neurological reorganization practitioner. Evaluations every eight to twelve weeks are performed to re-assess the individual’s neurological function and to change the neurodevelopmental activities to meet the individual’s new needs. Just as a two month old infant does different activities than a six month old infant, so, too, will the individual’s assigned neurodevelopmental activities change to address her emerging needs and abilities. The process of doing the activities at home on a daily basis and being evaluated every few months is repeated until the individual is no longer exhibiting the signs and symptoms of neurological dysfunction (the behaviors that contribute to her RAD diagnosis) and no evidence of dysfunction is found at the functional neurological exam.
Neurological reorganization is not a quick, easy fix. It requires commitment and dedication to complete the neurodevelopmental activities on a daily basis. Typically, it takes about eighteen months to two years of daily activities averaging an hour a day for a RAD child to fully resolve her neurological issues. However, changes are generally observed within the first two weeks of beginning the program, so, typically, one does not wait long to see new abilities emerge. While it requires commitment, neurological reorganization is a permanent solution as, once those new neural connections are in place, normal function can occur and the constellation of emotional and behavioral problems can subside. The individual gains the capacity to form appropriate bonds and relationships. She gains the tools to trust those around her. She identifies and respects her emotional and physical boundaries, which, in turn, allows her to respect others. Her behavior adjusts to become more appropriate to her current circumstances. Mental health counseling, which is strongly recommended in conjunction with neurological reorganization, becomes more effective in processing her early experiences and reinforcing appropriate behavior.
Attachment disorders can be debilitating to those who experience them and to those individuals’ loved ones. Due to the neurological basis of these disorders, traditional therapies can be short-term patches that address some, but not all, of the person’s issues. Stimulation of the impaired part of the brain and repetition of neurological development allows healthy function to emerge. While the individual must address her lingering emotions, she is now free to maximize her potential. As the mother of such a child remarked, “He still has much to learn about the emotions that were so long locked away from him, but now he has the ability to be a healthy and happy child.”
About the Author
Emily Beard is a neurological reorganization practitioner for Neurodevelopmental Healing. She holds two degrees, one in cognitive science and movement analysis and the second in early childhood education, and is trained as a doula and in infant Montessori. Emily has worked with hundreds of clients with attachment disorders, primarily RAD, and has also personally experienced neurological reorganization with several of her own family members for issues ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome to bipolar disorder. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.