What is a Reflex?
A reflex is an automatic motor response to a stimulus. For example, when light shines into our eyes, our pupils contract. The reaction is spontaneous and instantaneous. Reflexes are extremely important to a child's developing body and brain.
Reflexes emerge in utero and infancy helping with the birthing process and protecting babies in the early months of life. Each reflex carries out a specific task for specific motor development skills. For example, Hands Grasp Reflex develops muscle strength and dexterity in the hands forming the foundation for all fine motor movement and coordination. When each reflex fulfills its function, it becomes inactive (or integrated) and acts as a foundation for one or more reflexes further on in the developmental sequence.
When a child's early reflexes integrate, he or she is able to easily progress through the sequence of movements (including crawling) which cause children to become neurologically organized and meet their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive milestones with ease.
Reflexes Are Critical to Learning
When these early reflexes fail to integrate (are still active) they interfere with motor development, visual and auditory processing ability, coordination, balance and cognitive skills - those same abilities children need to be successful learners (both in and out of the classroom). This can also cause sensory, social, and behavioural problems.
Reflexes and Learning Disabilities
Studies show that children with learning disabilities often have a similar cluster of active reflexes. These active reflexes are obstacles that interfere with their ability to take in information, process it, and use it in an efficient manner. Here are some examples of how active (retained) reflexes can affect the ability to learn.
Difficulty with Reading
When an infant turns the head to one side, the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) causes the limbs on that side of the body to extend and the limbs on the other side of the body to bend. This reflex builds an infant's ability to "cross the midline" (move limbs from one side of the body to the other with ease) - an ability that builds neural integration. The ATNR also develops eye-hand coordination and smooth eye tracking. This reflex is usually integrated by six months.
When the ATNR fails to integrate, eye movements from left to right will not be smooth. This "jumping" can cause reading problems such as losing one's place on the page, inaccurate reading, inability to sustain focus, and poor comprehension.
Several studies show the presence of an active ATNR in children with learning disabilities.
Difficulty with Handwriting
Touch an infant's hand at the base of the fingers and the Hand's Grasp Reflex will cause the fingers to grip into a fist. If this reflex fails to integrate, it will be difficult to achieve a proper pencil grip. When one finger moves forward the other fingers are compelled to move with it, making it difficult to hold the pencil in a position that enables a child to write with ease. Hand's Grasp Reflex is usually integrated by 12 months.
Handwriting can also be affected if the ATNR (see above) fails to integrate. When the head turns, the arm will want to straighten and the fingers will want to extend. Using a pen/pencil for any length of time will require a huge amount of effort, causing the child to grip the pencil tightly and creating tension in the body.
Inability to Pay Attention
When an infant is stroked along the side of the spine, the Spinal Galant Reflex causes the hip on that side of the body to flex upward. This reflex helps the baby "wiggle" out of the birth canal. It is usually integrated by nine months.
A retained Spinal Galant Reflex interferes with a child's ability to pay attention. In the classroom, when a child's back touches the back of the chair, the reflex is activated causing restlessness and fidgeting. A child may also be aggravated by tags on clothing and tight waistbands. The presence of an active Spinal Galant Reflex has also been linked to delayed toileting and bed wetting.
Reflexes and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Children with ASD often have many active reflexes. This makes it difficult for them to progress through the sequence of early childhood movements that typical developing children execute with ease. These early movements are extremely important to the development of neurological organization. When children do not do these movements (crawling for example), or they do them in a different manner (because of active reflexes) this can impact every area of their development (developmental movement).
Integrating Reflexes to Get Back on Track
It is possible to integrate those reflexes which are still active and presenting obstacles to learning (social, emotional, behavioural as well as academic). Rainbow Connections Developmental Therapies combines reflex integration and neurodevelopmental movement techniques to create individualized programs for children. The overall goal of these programs is to build and strengthen neural pathways so children can succeed.