In May I gave a presentation at Ignite to a packed theatre on the tools I use to help parents of children with special needs around the world. But there was a catch: the presentation was limited to 5 minutes and 20 autoforwarding slides.
The talk was on the simple tools that account for improved performance. What I’ve found from my years working with children with disability is that the tools that can help kids are simple, and applicable to everyone.
The Attitude that Works is how I describe an attitude I bring to my coaching with special needs children, and try to apply everywhere, in any learning environment. The attitude consists of three parts:
For background, I’ve been developing an attitude that works for years. When I talked a guy down from jumping off a bridge in college, this is what I was using. This philosophy is what makes me effective in coaching children, and also throughout my physical studies. I am by no means perfect – far from it – but formulating guiding principals has been extremely useful as a reminder of what creates an effective environment for learning.
When I began working with children with autism I discovered that they often lack the social standards that we take for granted. I found that the only way to work with these special children was through being completely compassionate to their experience, even if I didn’t know what that experience was. These children rely on their sense of those around them – their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by others – instead of just the social niceties. It turns out that we all sense the attitudes held by those around us, whether we recognize them or not, and that these attitudes profoundly shape how we behave. When we are compassionate or loving with someone else we are much more inviting to that person, and more likely to foster a connection. The rule holds true for ourselves, as well: when we are compassionate with ourselves our brains are literally more available to process new information and form novel connections.
Autism is not simple. It is not just a genetic disorder, an eating disorder or brain damage. Autism is a whole host of different factors and I love working with children with autism for exactly this reason.
Most children, even with severe disabilities, prefer to spend time with other human beings. They like to interact. They enjoy being looked at. They enjoy being touched. Children with autism (often) don’t!
With children with autism there is often trouble with eating or digestion. There are movement difficulties. Autism has so many different factors to learn about, to discover and – best of all – each one is radically different between children!
I can see one child who’s very highly functioning – maybe Asperger’s – and they will not eat pasta. Another child – a little boy I work with, Zach, is amazing at taking a pen and flipping it and flipping it three times in the air and catching it and catching it on the same side each and every single time. I could train that for years and I might be able to get as good as he is.
People on the autism spectrum have such amazing and specific quirks! They have unique preferences that it is a new puzzle each time. Every timeI see a child, even somebody I know, I get to learn about a new child. I have to start with them exactly where they are and I can’t assume. If I come and I assume that the child I’m working with today is going to be like the child that I worked with last week, there’s no moving forward. It’s such a fun reset, such a neat and intriguing and useful way to start. I get to practice my own internal, mental, emotional and physical flexibility because one child might not want to come into my door and one child might want to leap on me and, right, have a piggyback ride. Because there are so many contributing factors I could see this situation as difficult, but actually it is a lot like the rest of our lives! Our family and friends aren’t always feeling the same way. We do assume that they are how they usually are. We can usually get away with our assumptions. But how much more kind, more respectful not as assume we know where someone is. I practice with kids with autism.
Autism is a dynamic system. To engage with a child with autism I’m required to bring more of myself to table, be the best that I can possibly be. But instead of viewing this as a difficult, I view it as a learning experience and fun.
I love working with children with autism. I do are not just because I get to witness sometimes subtle and other times profound transformations for the children that I work with. I enjoy what I do because selfishly I benefit in my own life to work with these special needs children!
Through practicing an attitude of loving and accepting the children that I work with I feel happier in my own life and can have an even more profound impact with the children that I work with.
Learn more about the loving attitude that works with autism in my discussion of the Attitude That Works.
I’m a fan of the author Tim Ferriss. He published a recent book called the The 4-Hour Chef, which teaches his theme of skill hacking through the medium of cooking. I’ve never looked for outside help with cooking – in college my quiches received rave reviews and my sister teaches cooking professionally at hip cooks – but I love Tim’s story-telling, flair for the dramatic, and most of all his simple, practical ideas.
One of the tools I’ve implemented since reading The 4-Hour Chef is Tim’s “prescriptive 1-pager.” The prescriptive 1-pager is essentially a next-steps reminder for the things we want to learn or implement within a given area. For example, I’m currently studying tango:
I like lists. Not just for the grocery store but also of the tools and skills I need in order to master some large goal. Recently, I do lists differently. The above picture is the Tango prescriptive 1-pager I wrote up for myself upon my return from an autism outreach in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This page doesn’t cover everything there is to know about tango. It isn’t meant to. What it does is serve as a quick reminder for all of my current areas of focus. I glance at this page before a night of dancing and choose 1-3 areas that I am going to focus on for the evening.
“Does it make a difference with children with special needs?”
These are among the most common questions we hear. To begin to answer some of these we’ve compiled stories from the March 2013 Free Children’s Clinic of parents and children discussing their experience.
A very authentic interview of Anat on the Anat Baniel Method and Kids Beyond Limits. I love how straightforward she is in sharing her wonder at everyone’s capacity to change. Anat clearly and concisely discusses the difference between mechanical systems and the human brain, which is a learning, information-gathering system. She uses the metaphor of fixing a flat tire: the idea being that we simply cannot fix a person like we might fix a car. Humans are built to grow and learn, not to be solved. Her discussion of teaching the usefulness of “I wonder” is just as I experienced it in her training. As an aside, it is the same way I was taught to not presuppose and to approach questions with an open mind in science. All in all this interview is a loving, open-minded and fascinating glimpse into Anat’s thinking process and the Anat Baniel Method. Delicious and useful!
I went skiing in February 2011 for the first time in many years. I’ve made several trips to the mountains since and expect to continue playing in the snow even as the weather in San Francisco shifts rapidly towards Summer. Quite apart from my tendency to fixate on whatever novel movements I happen across (over the last year my enthusiasm has encompassed a range including foosball, the manual dexterity necessary for cadaver dissection, and rock-climbing), in skiing I have enjoyed the opportunity to explore the topics of movement with attention and enthusiasm.
I began skiing shortly after I could walk, plummeting down hills without consideration for danger or parallel turns. While my family did not live within convenient proximity to the snow, we made it a point to get out to the mountains several times each year. In high school I realized how expensive skiing could be and decided to explore more accessible means of expressing my zeal. This year I have re-discovered an activity I had thought lost to childhood memory.
I did some small amount of mental preparation prior to that first ski trip – imaging what it would be like to wear skis again, visualizing parallel turns on a downhill slope – but I had no idea whether I would be starting from scratch. From the fact that I write enthusiastically of returning to the mountains it is easy to guess that I hadn’t lost my old habits. But since then I have been pestered by the question: Why?
When I stepped off the lift at the top of the mountain (Kirkwood, for the record) I truly did not know whether I would head down a black diamond slope or back down the chairlift. What I did was take my time; not timidly but with attention and enthusiasm. I raise these last two points because they are – in my experience – essential to any learning process. If I had stepped off the lift full of judgement I wouldn’t have lasted an hour. I thought back to what skiing had felt like as a kid. I recalled the feeling of ease that accompanies memories of my early days of skiing, of fearlessness, and the capacity for fixation that is necessary for any young child’s development. I indulged in my experience, both current and historic, and took my first slope without expectation.
These “Essentials” are by no means my own invention. Anat Baniel teaches that Movement with Attention, Enthusiasm, and others are essential for learning. But I began to apply these without planning to and gained some insight on how I might recreate positive experiences in the future.
Since that first trip I’ve given some thought to how best to prepare myself for a day of skiing. I’ve created a short YouTube video to depict some of the activities that I now use to get ready for a day of skiing. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone “warming” themselves up to ski so I thought I would do something small to encourage “warming up” on the slopes. I hope you enjoy this video as much I enjoyed rolling around in the snow to create it!
What have I taken home with me besides a renewed appreciation for skiing? I found myself applying some basic precepts in unexpected ways. Instead of trying to control my first experience of skiing, I entered into the experience wondering “What is this going to be like?”. I re-created the feelings of ease that I experienced as a child. I was passionately enthusiastic. I put these thoughts forward as tools to consider going forward into any new activity and learning to move the way you want.
I began my running career early, alternatively tagging along to and getting carried along to family running events. I have fond memories of being the target of flying tortillas at many Bay to Breakers. On my Dad’s shoulder before the start of the run I became known as “the Kid” and the running was entirely secondary to the preceding tortilla warfare. My memories of the half and full marathons to which I was “encouraged” to attend are less fond. Generally, my Dad ran the full, my mother and sister ran the half, and at 10 years old I keep up as best as I could.
My strength on the high school cross-country team was as a hill climber. I was not at the top of the team, though I did run varsity though junior and senior years. My best 3 mile race was at an average 5.30 minute/mile. I disappointed my coaches and my parents when I walked off the team midway through the Fall of my senior year. I left because I was bored with the limits of running. I had had just about enough of “run faster.”
That ending was the beginning of a very exciting and eclectic movement education. I studied fencing, rock-climbing, a couple of martial forms, a variety of dance forms, and numerous circus apparatus. I have since performed in dance and in circus.
Years later, I’ve been drawn back to running. Leaps on a ballet dance floor leave me anxious to get out and take up even more space leaping on mountain trails. My answer to the ubiquitous smoking breaks outside every dance studio I’ve experienced is to go for a run. The difference is how I think about running. I still like moving fast and I’m still an endorphin junkie but I don’t run for the sake of running anymore.
I purchased my first pair of Vibram 5-finger 12 months ago after reading this article from the New York Times magazine. I have always been an advocate of barefootedness. Early in high school I studied abroad in Costa Rica and walked and ran barefoot after discovering that my performance running shoes offered no traction in the mud.
I had no trouble adapting to my new Vibram Five-Fingers probably because I’ve always enjoyed using my toes. A traditional Anat Baniel Method/Feldenkrais Method exercise consists of gently interlacing toes with the fingers of the opposite hand. (Go really slowly, don’t insert fingers in a way that causes pain!) The mobility of my feet were dramatically altered as a result of an hour spend doing variations on this theme. An interesting fact: young children often have the dexterity to interlace the toes of their feet just as we interlace our fingers. It is something I aspire to.
The Vibrams were great for walking down San Francisco streets. This was just before the shoes hit mainstream shops and I got into all sorts of interesting conversations with people who wondered what in the world I had on my feet. The downside I’ve discovered to Vibram Five-Fingers is the same that I encounter with running shoes. I still can’t feel the floor. Especially during winter months when trails are wet and muddy there just isn’t enough sensation, my toes can’t dig it. I still tend to take my Vibrams off halfway though a run and continue barefoot.
I’ve recently learned of a new shoe-less product that may enter the market. Nike has come up with what they are calling “Foot stickers,” rubber/plastic patches that fit on parts of the bottom of the foot and act as second skin. I haven’t (yet) managed to find a pair to try but I like the idea in principle. There are a couple of varieties depending on activity: yoga, dance, cardio. More samples and the article here.
I haven’t seen many shoe-less alternatives available. A simple, though pessimistic, explanation: running shoe manufactures have a market cornered and don’t want to let it go. There is more money in telling customers that a new shoe will solve the problem than in telling them to take off those shoes and walk/run barefoot.
My own shift away from regular shoes has resulted in an increase in my awareness of my feet throughout my daily life. By increasing the demand on my nervous system during a run I feel as if I’m actually increasing the use of my feet throughout my life.
I attended Anat Baniel’s Move Into Life workshop in July 2009. Michael Merzenich, PhD and noted neuroscientist was in attendance and gave a short talk.
To summarize Merzenich says that walking around barefoot increases demand on the brain, which in turn improves performance. I have mulled his discussion over since July of 2009 and taken my running to a new, logical level in recent months. I’ve found running barefoot on a university track to be painful and it isn’t always possible to find trails. The city streets of San Francisco pose a threat to the barefoot runner. I resort to running barefoot on a treadmill. Now that I’ve thought of it, this seems completely logical. Running shoes we built to keep our feet safe. The gait-path of a treadmill doesn’t pose significant threat of rock or used needle; in other words we would be hard pressed to find a safer environment on which to run. Thus far I haven’t been ordered off a treadmill as a result of my barefoot running. I do get strange looks.
Another new discovery resulting from my own barefoot exploration is related directions in research. It turns out that Harvard has a lab dedicated to the topic of barefoot running. (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/)
This skeletal biology lab asks “how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern shoes”. They compare native peoples from various parts of the world who have never worn shoes with long-time barefoot runners and gym-going shoe-wearing runners. The most informative piece of this website for me was that of children running in African whose feet seem to slap the ground. The muscular tonus of their feet is pretty minimal and they seem very light and easy on their feet as they run.
Try an experiment: Choose your dominant hand. Bend your arm at the elbow, leaving the elbow on the ground. Relax your wrist so your hand hangs limp. Raise your hand and forearm like this six inches or a foot off the ground and let it fall. Don’t throw it at the ground, just let it fall. Do this several times. After: do you notice a difference between your dominant hand, the one you let fall, and your non-dominant hand? I’ve been trying to run using my feet like this. Literally letting my feet falls towards the ground as I run. It takes some practice but if the Harvard Skeletal lab is to be delivered, running barefoot requires on average 7% less energy than running in shoes, and is significantly less likely to cause long-term damage to the runner.
I spent the weekend at Anat Baniel’s “New Fitness” workshop. My new conceptualization of enthusiasm, vitality, and fitness: A baby learning to crawl. I, for one, have never seen anyone in a gym look so eager nor move so well.
I just watched Aditi Shankardass discuss neurological diagnostic techniques for learning disorders on TED talks. This seven minute clip is worth seeing.
Finally, I’m continuing to enjoy the writings of Jonah Lehrer. Specifically, in September he summarized a paper about the importance of practice. Here’s the link and here is the conclusion of the paper:
On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure. If this proves to be a general rule of nondeclarative learning, it could help to explain how potent instances of learning can arise when sensory stimulation is not always coupled with attention.
One day some months ago, in the middle of a very intense segment, Anat asked my class: “How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?” Today, a number of events have conspired to encourage me to consider these words.
This afternoon I posted a New York Times article @robinpzander on the effects of tai chi on fibromyalgia. The research article discussed in the Times was published in the New England Journal of Medicine – a rather prestigious journal – and the Times enthusiastically discussed the findings. I have only dabbled in tai chi (specifically tai chi chuan) but have enormous respect for the form(s) and it comes as no surprise to me that medical professionals found positive effects on the little-understood neurological degenerative condition or conditions that we call fibromyalgia. Tai chi consists of a series of interconnected movements executed slowly with attention. Sound familiar? That’s two basic precepts of human motor learning:
Movement with attention
While there may well be aspects specific to tai chi that improve nervous system functioning, I need no further proof than these underlying precepts to satisfy my personal search for knowledge.
Later today I shared the Times article with my mother. My mother’s is the voice in my head that asks, when I’m confronting a difficult decision, how does it feel? (Good? Go for it! Bad! Leave.) She was a bit dismayed that so much time, energy, and money was put in to creating a scientific article that says something that is (for her) self-evident. Of course moving gently with attention improves functioning. What of it?
That said, she has been repeatedly surprised by the impact of her current favorite form of movement: a very specific restorative yoga class. Her recent report was that she slept very deeply for a full night for the first time in several months. When I asked what happened in class I heard an increasingly familiar set of words: gentle, slow, attention, movement.
A dear friend recently had a routine check-up with her physician. One of her major on-going projects has been eating foods that are gentle on her system. In stressful times she always falls back on broths, soups, and easily digested ingredients. I have not known many people so dedicated to their slow road to recovery as my friend, but as she says – she must, therefore she does. In this case, she was discussing her status with her doctor and feeling a little overwhelmed by the current stumbling blocks. His response (reproduced to the best of my ability) was: “There is no method or organization, person or process that can tell you what to do. You have to feel what is right for you and do that.” He elaborated by saying that there is no such thing as trying. “Don’t ask ‘how can I eat better?’ Ask ‘what am I going to eat today?'”
First, I’m in awe of any Medical Doctor with such comprehensive and holistic knowledge. I know they exist but I certainly haven’t encountered many in my own experience at Kaiser Permanente. After I got over that initial response, I heard the underlying message: How does it feel? This medically trained professional is well-published and (as I understand such things) well-respected within nutritional medicine but he is not asking my friend to follow a specific regime. Instead, she has been given the power and responsibility to follow her own intuition or thinking or common sense or whatever we want to call it.
I foresee a hosts of arguments again the question of How Much Evidence Do You Need. I have studied enough Cognitive Psychology to know that humans are often very poor decision makers (Thank You, Dan Reisberg.) On the other hand, I’ve had enough experiences of not stopping to think before acting to see some strong correlations between how something feels during or afterward. (Those 4 donuts at a friend’s 14th birthday party…? I haven’t eaten a donut since, I felt so ill. Hiked up the mountain as it was getting dark…? Covered in poison oak, cold, and lost on the mountain.)
This is my first approximation putting down in words what for me is just a feeling or an idea. But consider: How do you decide whether to take a shortcut through a dark ally? How do you feel? If you feel unsafe, that’s all the evidence you’ll ever need to not go down that ally. I’m not interested in dismissing hard scientific proof. I’m just curious what would happen if we were to ask ourselves the question:
How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?
The following from a conversation I had with a dance teacher I really like. The best (and most challenging) ballet classes I’ve ever taken. Topic is the application of the Anat Baniel Method and Feldenkrais for professional dancers. I think the ideas also apply to all high-level athletes.
What I am interested in hearing is what you have done and are doing in terms of your Feldenkrais training, what you intend to do with that training and how that would translate to a dancer’s education on an ongoing basis.
Is that all? I’m glad you are starting small. If you were to ask all of the hard questions all at once I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Anat Baniel was one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ pupils and studied under him from the early ’70s until his death in ’84. Since then she as founded the Anat Baniel Method, continuing the evolution of the Feldenkrais Method under her own name. Anat is widely regarded in the Feldenkrais community and is also the mother of a close friend. In my life I have encountered a small handful of instructors (in a diverse set of fields) whose process of instruction – quite apart from the material itself – is truly exceptional. (While we are on the topic, you are one of those few.) Anat is one. At its essence her topic is learning and thus how she teaches is, of course, exemplary.
I just came across the following definition of the concept of the core at Spring Pilates and Yoga Studio in San Francisco.
What is the “core”?
You may have been hearing this buzz word for a while now, not completely sure what everyone is talking about. The core refers to a group of muscles and tissue around the crucial area of the lower trunk and hips. This group includes the lower spine, sacrum, pelvis, and femurs. Strengthening the muscles that attach to these areas, such as the abdominals, psoas, spinal erectors and gluteals are necessary to stabilize and control this “core” area. Since the core is the foundation of all movement (kind of like a starfish, where all movement radiates out from the center), any weakness, instability or dysfunction can cause minor to severe strain and discomfort throughout the entire body.
It is a better definition than most and provides a good place to begin. Look for further discussion soon!