The girls and I were driving around town a few weeks ago, and all of a sudden I heard Dana yell, “Limo!” from the back seat. Out of my rear view mirror I saw Dana’s arm pointing down the street to where in fact a limousine had passed us, a rare occurrence in our small town. As I focused back on the road in front of me, I heard Charlotte’s high, anxious, whiny voice coming from the seat right behind me. “Where?! Where?! Oh no! I missed it!”
Sadly, this situation is not uncommon within the 4 walls of our mini van. Dana will typically spot something interesting on the road or driving by, Charlotte will miss the sighting due to her dysfunctional visual processing. Before her Kindergarten school year began, Charlotte had difficulty reading the eye chart at her physical exam. A special needs optometrist confirmed that glasses would not fix this particular problem. A weakness occurred with the eyes and the way the brain processed the visual information. It’s a concept that is difficult to understand for those of us who process visual information normally.
I know Charlotte is struggling with her visual processing when she is having difficulty with eye contact, when she can’t look at me and smile at the same time when taking a picture, when she avoids reading or homework, when she seems to be using her peripheral vision (or looking off to the side) to process her world. And when she can’t see a limousine driving by that she really wanted to see. It’s a frustrating problem that is difficult to fix. Due to Charlotte’s progress we no longer qualify for any therapy that would be covered by insurance, but clearly problems still exist. Since 2010, we have paid out of pocket for Charlotte to have private vision therapy, a process where her eyes and brain are trained to work together. Though expensive and far away, the therapy has been helpful.
In September of this year, we finished 20 sessions of vision therapy and I sat down with the doctor to review her results. I wasn’t really happy with them and neither was he. He said to keep an eye on her reading, and he wanted to see her back in January. In all of our years of receiving this therapy we had never been told to come back so soon. I left frustrated and concerned. As we entered her second grade school year, I observed Charlotte as she read and while she recognized most of the words, she still struggled with reading fluently or smoothly. She would get to the middle of a sentence, stumble and have to go back to the beginning of the sentence to start again. Her teachers see that she is still reading at grade level, but I see a struggle that will eventually catch up to her and I feel powerless to fix it.
I held onto to that powerless feeling as I watched her on the soccer field. For a year we had done a soccer skills class where she learned the fundamentals of soccer, how to kick and dribble. During the scrimmages of this skills class, I saw a fierce athlete come out in her and attack the ball with an energy and focus that she didn’t have during the warm up and drills. She had asked to be on a real team in the Fall and standing on the side lines with Dana and Chad watching her warm up for her first ever game, my stomach was fluttering with feelings of pride, amazement, worry, and terror.
To our surprise, she did just fine. She played a defensive position and instinctively knew to protect her goal. When she moved to an offensive position later in the game, I could see the familiar look of confusion and disorientation as she struggled to stay in position and figure out what she was supposed to be doing. Nonetheless, we were proud and chalked up the day as a huge victory for our family.
In the next few weeks, the focused and aggressive player that I saw in the scrimmages last year began to emerge. She was sprinting after the ball beating out other players and even had a few attempts at goal. Other players and parents were astonished, but I wasn’t surprised. I knew what was happening, and I was thrilled. I could smell success. She was so close. I made a cheat sheet to help Charlotte understand how the game worked and used her intelligence and budding confidence to teach her more about the game. We took her to a local university game for her to see how the big girls play and to get a global perspective of positioning, passing, and scoring.
Finally, it all came together. All week she talked about wanting to take “a clean shot at the goal.” She was visualizing a solid kick that got past the goalie and into the net. On Saturday she had an amazing game and scored 2 (almost 3) goals! In her typical non-autistic ultra expressive fashion, she celebrated with a huge smile, running over to the sidelines to hug us and high five-ing her teammates.Truly, it was a magical moment.
It wasn’t until about a week later, I noticed homework time seemed less stressful. She was reading out loud to me while I was cooking or doing the dishes and generally seemed more connected to the text. Like a typical second grader, she was reading to herself, looking over at the pictures for clues and going back to the text. When we read together, there was more fluency and visualization like we had worked on and she had a better understanding of who the characters were, what they were doing, and what might happen next.
Yesterday I came home from the gym and sat down in my quiet house. I began thinking about doing a blog post and my mind began processing Charlotte’s amazing progress. She had been scoring goals in her games fairly consistently, she was more focused and connected when reading, and her piano lessons and practice had produced less frustration lately. I thought I might be imagining all of these amazing connections. Was all of this a coincidence or was something significant happening neurologically? What if the movement was the missing piece? When playing soccer she had to move her body and visually process at the same time. Had she ever really done that before? Certainly, there wasn’t a big movement component in her private vision therapy that I knew of. I knew it had to be connected. What if we moved the way we were supposed to–in play and sport–and for fun? Would that improve other areas of our brain?
The answer is Yes. I spoke to Lori, our amazing Occupational Therapist for many years on the phone, and she was able to confirm that linear movement (up and down, side to side, back and forth) is considered to be foundational for rotational movement which activates the inner ear canals which connects to our vestibular and visual processing centers. With all of these connections in place, the brain and eyes can do what they were designed to do–take in visual information and respond appropriately just like Charlotte’s had done. She was essentially rewiring her brain and improving her reading while she was playing soccer.
It initially felt like a big light bulb or flash of lightning that all of these ideas were connected. That Charlotte’s brain could be changed by just doing what she loved. We may not need expensive therapies or reading intervention or stressful homework nights. We may be able to chart our own course help her. But wait a minute. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve gone back to the basics to improve her health. It now seems like common sense. I see the benefit of movement everyday all around me. When I workout at the gym, the blood, sweat and tears of my fellow Coast Rangers amaze and inspire me. The community and the connection always brings me back to making myself a better athlete even when my body is aching and sore. Watching Dana, our oldest daughter, develop as a dancer, finding herself and learning to express herself through movement, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of being a parent thus far. And it was just last April that Chad had ACL surgery, and his commitment to movement through recovery has him nearly back to where he was before his surgery.
It’s not something to overlook or consider as an optional piece of health. In the last few months, Charlotte has taught us that movement changes who we are. We still have a lot more work to do before she’s the one telling Dana about limos driving down the street, but today I’ll choose to soak up all of the feelings this experience has taught us. I’m so grateful for her bravery to try a new sport, her enthusiastic and competitive nature which makes it so fun and rewarding for her to play and for us to watch. Nothing pleases me more as a parent than to watch our girls find happiness and health within their power of their own bodies. I proudly wear the title of dance mom–and soccer mom.