Monday, April 13, 2009

Grasping a New Idea

I could not grasp how the system worked I told my husband. I could not wrap my mind around how it all fit together, so all I could do is memorize exactly what to do, telling myself each step over and over, but then when I would forget a step, I would be lost.

It does not matter what the topic was in this conversation. I was talking about a new computer program but it could have been anything. Just note, as you read the paragraph above, that all the words in orange refer, originally, to ways that we interact physically with the world. We learn the meaning of grasp, as we grasp things with our hands and things like blankets are wrapped around our body, we take steps with our feet and are lost when we end up in a physical location that we do not recognize with our eyes--or perhaps when we don't know how to move, with our body, back to a physical place where we feel safe and where we can get our physical needs met. There are literally thousands of words that we learn in a concrete way with our bodies and then we extend the meaning of these words to describe more abstract mental states and situations including feelings, beliefs, and philosophy. We can physically experience things with our bodies and build a set of neurological connections in our brain to handle these physical experiences but with language, we learn to describe these physical experiences with words and then understand each other because we have all had similar physical experiences. Language is so powerful, though, because our we are able to extend the meaning of these words, apparently still making a connection to the neurological structure that we built through sensory experience (the same brain connections). We end up able to think and talk about highly abstract ideas and still understand one another--based upon common physical experiences. Our understanding of these abstract concepts continues to be related, neurologically, to body sensations and body awareness. Of course, one can be blind or deaf or have other physical sensory deficits and come to understand the meaning of words that originated in sensory experiences but the common route to mapping meaning onto these words is clearly through body sensations.

My friend and colleague, Janet Oliver M.A., visited recently and she has been contemplating the relationship between body awareness and language acquisition. A usual explanation for one of the problems that children with autism have when learning language is that these children have difficulty with abstract thinking--that is extending the meaning of all these words from a concrete body in space meaning to increasingly abstract meanings. Janet, a specialist in neurological development, notes that children with autism often show evidence of infant reflexes that should have been inhibited in the first months or years of life. She evaluates children who struggle with coordination and body awareness, with motor planning, with integrating information across the two sides of the brain, with dozens of sensory issues that most of us take for granted because our bodies and brains were wired up pretty well by the time we were six years old. Janet says that she wonders if the trouble that children with autism have with language development might originate with the trouble these children have with body awareness, sensory integration, movement, and coordination. This is an idea, that, if true, could lead to much more specific language interventions for children who have sensory-motor disorders.

If you would like to know more about Janet Oliver M.A. visit her website at:

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