UNDERSTANDING AUTISM AND SPECIAL NEEDS FROM AN ANTHROPOSOPHIC PERSPECTIVE

(Written on request from a friend to create awareness about Anthroposophy and its importance in Autism from my perspective)

My name is Nirupama. I am a psychologist. I work with children with special needs and mostly autism. Currently my focus is on parent training, education and support. I started my career in 1994 when the incidence of autism was relatively low, that is six for every ten thousand children. Today it is one in every sixty. It is worth pondering over the rise in its incidence.

A decade into my career, the conventional therapies mainly focused on academics, speech and behavioral therapies which focused on correcting, educating or ‘fixing’ the children. And I was doing the same.

It was in 2008 that I attended my first annual conference on Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy is the philosophy founded by spiritual scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner in the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a philosophy that when applied to any walk of life or field of work our everyday tasks become more enlivened, conscious, and more humane.

That was where for the first time I heard someone talking about ‘connecting’ with the child. The concepts I heard in that conference shifted completely my paradigms, not only on autism but on life itself.
The branch of anthroposophy that works with Special Needs, is called Curative Education. Without going into the details of the spiritual-scientific principles, I would like to mention the concepts that I found useful for all children, but more so those with autism, ADHD, Learning disabilities, sensory processing and developmental disorders. These concepts are now more widely accepted in the mainstream society. The following is what became clear to me, personally, in the past nine years with Anthroposophy with regard to autism:

• A child’s behavior, emotional state and ability to learn depend on his well-being and his internal health. A healthy child is a happy child. No amount of therapies can yield complete benefit until the child is feeling well and balanced. For this, it is important to look into what he eats, when he eats, when and how much he sleeps, what he does during the day, his lifestyle, the environment at home and so on. This is much in line with the principles of Ayurveda.

• Autism is known as a neurological disorder. However, like Rudolf Steiner said about almost a hundred years ago, it has a lot to do with metabolism and gut health as it is being widely accepted these days and parents are seeing amazing results with special diets like wheat, milk, sugar free and other diets.

• A child with autism has an intact intellect (unless there’s comorbidity with other conditions). However, the body doesn’t cooperate with the mind. Therefore therapists need to focus more on the physical body with movement, balance, core muscle development, reflex integration, physical fitness, massages, sports, horse riding, walking, trekking, and most importantly, real, meaningful work with hands, etc., to help the child ground into his body, to become aware of his body, so that his body is able to access the intellect that is already present and use it to function more productively in this world. In other words, improve the mind body connect. This is the reason that Occupational therapy, when done effectively, yields positive results.

• Even if the child is non-speaking (lack of expressive language), it is incorrect to assume that the child is unable to comprehend, follow or grasp what is being said (intact receptive language). We need to assume intellect and address his actual age in teaching him academic concepts, exposing him to books, stories and life experiences, as their receptive language is much better than their expressive language. Children have proved this true with the help of the RPM method that is helping them learn and communicate age appropriately.

• Children with autism, because of their awareness not being completely grounded in their bodies, are less individualized and much more at one with the natural world as compared to typical persons. Hence, it is extremely beneficial to keep them close to nature, maintain eco friendly and natural living styles, food, rhythms and routines that are in harmony with the natural world.

  • They do not have a sense of “I” or Ego and hence they are not capable of any negative thinking or actions and are pure hearted. Interestingly, many verbal children on the spectrum do not use the word ”I” to refer to themselves. Instead they use names in third person!

• Therapy is more effective when therapists connect deeply with the children, respect and accept them for who they are and gain their trust by working from the heart and soul as opposed to working mechanically.

No two children with autism are the same and it is important to observe them and allow ourselves to be guided by their needs and not be bound rigidly by schedules and agendas although it is important to have a structure to begin with.

Steiner strongly recommended that teachers and Curative Educators do ‘Innerwork’. That is, work on their own conscious growth and development. Get in touch with their inner core and find their internal balance. This would help them serve the children and adults alike in a deeper, compassionate and a more intuitive way.

• Children are more deeply and subtly connected with their parents’ and more so the mother’s well being than we are aware. The sensitive children often reflect the mother’s state of mind. Hence it is equally important to work with the mothers, help them deal with their anxiety, help them accept their children unconditionally, to help them identify their children’s strengths and build on them. In addition, most importantly, to find something that will fulfill the mother’s personal need for joy and happiness. A happy, fulfilled mother is able to better care for her family than a mother who is giving more than she is receiving.

• Although technology is proving to be a boon for children on the autism spectrum, we need to be careful not to expose these children to too much technology as they are sensitive to the EMF and radiation that comes from the wifi and signals. The TV and video programming ensures that the children are highly stimulated and hence hooked on to them.
Children are responding positively to methods like communication charts, PECS and RPM which do not involve the use of technology. In this time and age of excesses, it important not to expose children to over-stimulation of the senses (example: noisy videos, malls, arcades). Care has to be taken to keep the children in calm and peaceful environments as many of them are hypersensitive to loud noises and to reduce the occurrence of hyperactivity which is rather environmentally induced.

• Children on the autism spectrum and other special conditions need to be helped to live a life of dignity and productivity. This is the central guiding principle behind the Camphill Communities (residential communities for adults with mental and psychological disabilities) based on principles of anthroposophy, located all over the world including India. It is important to keep the youngsters and adults productively engaged in order to help them become contributing members of the society in their own unique capacity.

These are just some of my takeaways from anthroposophy.
Hence, anthroposophy is not just a method of education or medicine, but it is a way of life. It is a holistic way of looking at the human being and serving humanity with a deeper understanding.
I sincerely believe that anthroposophy can improve the quality of life of everyone that is touched by it in one form or another. It has made my life and work so much more meaningful.

Nirupama Rao
Psychologist, Parent Consultant.
Author- The Autism Story
raonino@gmail.com

Curative Educational Institutes in India: http://www.anthroposophyindia.org/education.htm