According to the CDC, autism affects one out of 100 children in the United States, and with April being Autism Awareness month, I was joined by Dr. Timothy Culbert and Roberta Scherf, founder and creator of MeMoves, to discuss the new tool that is revolutionizing the way autism is being addressed at home and in the classroom.
Dr. Timothy Culbert. Image courtesy of Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota
Roberta Scherf, President and Founding Partner of Thinking Moves, LLC. Image courtesy of FableVision
Candace Rose: Dr. Culbert, can you explain fight or flight symptoms?
Dr. Culbert: "I certainly can. The fight or flight concept refers to this idea that when your nervous system is very aroused or stressed you have a lot of what's called 'sympathetic nervous system activity' and that leads people oftentimes to make one of two choices either in essence to stand and fight in that difficult, stressful situation or alternatively, run away. And so one of the issues we get into with kids with autism, is that many kids with autism (we believe) are over-aroused or have that sympathetic nervous system turned on all the time or at least most of the time, and in that mode they tend to be less socially engageable, they don't think as clearly or focus as well, so that can lead to some of these more difficult or challenging behaviors."
Candace Rose: Roberta, as the founder of MeMoves, can you tell us about the tool and how it works?
Roberta Scherf: "Sure. It's very easy to use; it's an intervention that has a couple parts- the heart of which is a multisensory DVD that contains short sequences two to three minutes in length. And each sequence contains simple images, patterns, music and rhythm and people moving to the rhythm and the patterns. And what the child with autism would do would be to imitate (as much as they're able) the person on the screen."
Candace Rose: This question is for both of you- what can administrators do to help those with autism, ADHD and other disorders?
Dr. Timothy Culbert: "Well, I think in terms of a broad perspective there has been quite a strong focus for kids with any kind of emotional or behavioral difficulty on the use of psychiatric medications. And I think what we're seeing more and more as those kinds of meds- although they can definitely be useful, they don't really address some of these core issues like rebalancing the nervous system. And so I think that parents really want non-pharmacologic approaches for their kids. They're really asking us for more skills and less pills. So I think administrators, health care providers- other folks can really be more aware of a lot of these other tools that are out there to help kids, actually with not just autism, but other developmental and behavioral disorders and understand that teaching kids self-care skills so that they can self-regulate or balance their own nervous system is a really wonderful thing that provides them with a life long skill they can apply to lots of different challenges as they move along in life."
Roberta Scherf: "I would absolutely agree and say that what we do know- when you're asking about what administrators/teachers can do- we know that in order for a child to learn, their nervous system has to be in a calm, but alert state. And giving them the tools and the skills that will help them to get to that place, so that they're not constantly holding their breath or self stimming or having all these different thoughts ore really shut down in stress. That makes a big, big difference and we know that as you reduce stress, you increase function and this is a very simple way to bring something into a classroom. It doesn't replace anything else, what it does is to enhance everything else that's going on in the classroom so you can use it as a transition tool or priming activity, because it will then make everything else that follows easier and more effective, particularly allowing that child to move through their world more easily and to learn more easily."
Candace Rose: What kind of feedback are you getting about how the tool works?
Roberta Scherf: "Oh my gosh, it's so cool, it's amazing. I'm so thrilled- what we did was to put something together so that we could help kids and what we've found is that just by word of mouth it's being used now more than 800 school districts, and a dozen countries around the world. The best thing, though is that the feedback is from parents and from teachers and from the children themselves, where we're seeing that for them it changes everything. It will stop meltdowns. I can tell you a couple different stories of one- we got a lot of phone calls- it was surprising before Christmas this year from parents who said 'this is the one thing my child wants for Christmas' and I'm thinking 'okay, they're going to want a bike, they're going to want a Nintendo. But we got calls from parents saying 'I've been looking all over for this because my child uses it in school and it gives them two hours to just be like other kids to think, to read, to be calm, to have a safe space'. And so when that happened, that's just amazing to hear, but yeah we get calls from teachers, parents, occupational therapists, physicians and the response has been overwhelming."
Dr. Timothy Culbert: "I think the other thing I find in the clinical setting is that kids can really engage in it quickly and in a non-threatening way because it's really designed to be interactive fun for them, so it does not seem like therapy. So the kids play the game- they do it, they do what they need to do, they notice it, enjoy it, engage in it and at the same time they're receiving this wonderful therapeutic response. But again, they don't have to know that, which I think is a really nice thing."
Candace Rose: Is the tool useful for those who don't suffer from ADHD or autism?
Roberta Scherf: "Oh my gosh, yes. I would say that it works for people of all ages and abilities. It really reduces stress. As one example- there's a school in Missouri, we have a teacher who is also a graduate student and she's been using it in her classroom of young children. And she's found that when she uses it on average four minutes a day (and this is a primarily mainstream classroom, not special needs) she sees a 71% reduction in off task behavior. It's a classroom where you can walk in and she said 'these kids are calm and they're able to attend for the first time'. So absolutely it's just another tool that really, really helps people."
Candace Rose: Can it be used for those who suffer from fight or flight symptoms due to anxiety disorders?
Dr. Timothy Culbert: "Absolutely. So in our clinical practice I've used it with many kids with variations on anxiety disorders- everything from separation anxiety and panic attacks to kids who have insomnia, they can't sleep because their anxiety is so high. So I think it has a lot of applications really for any child that's experiencing stress. And as we all know stress is really ubiquitous these days for kids. Stress is everywhere, and this is a great example of an interactive tool that works well to calm their stress. I think the fact that it is done in a way that is electronic and interactive of course, even makes it more appealing because so many kids these days are oriented towards those kinds of activities."
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional information you'd like to share?
Roberta Scherf: "Well, we actually have a lot of information on our website, so if people have more questions they could go to the site, which is: ThinkingMoves.com. Again, ThinkingMoves.com or they could google 'MeMoves'."