Mind and Body (#227)
"A healthy mind in a healthy body." Mens sana in corpore sano: This phrase is often taken to mean that having "mental well-being" leads to physical well-being, too.
FIfty years ago, autism was mislabeled as childhood schizophrenia; children with autism were thought to be "severely disturbed" in an emotional sense, thanks to the soundly disproved bad parenting and psychodynamic theories of the aetiology of autism. Recent research does point to abnormalities in the neuro-biological-chemical-make-up of autistic persons, whether because of genetics or from the environment or from mercury poisoning via thimerasol.
After recently observing, Charlie playing catch or scrawling his h’s and a’s and r’s so that they become indistinguishable or letting go immediately when we’ve lifted him up to the rings at the playground, we have thought more and more about how developing Charlie’s gross and fine motor skills can only contribute not only to his academic and educational progress, but to his overall sense of well-being. I have scheduled Charlie for a physical therapy evaluation in the coming weeks.
Sure Charlie is a natural swimmer and a long-distance bike rider (with plans to do the regular course at the 2006 Ride for Autism). But he cannot skip, dribble, jump rope, do soccer ball moves, hit a baseball, catch smaller balls (like a tennis ball), and a lot more. OTs have on and off said that Charlie has hypotonia and we need to do something about this, to teach Charlie to be the best that he can be.
In Autismland, educating the body is educating the mind.
Not that persons with disabilities, much less children with autism, are given appropriate or even adequate opportunities for developing their physical fitness, not to speak of their gross motor and fine motor coordination (as a recent New York Times article– Disabled, and Shut Out at the Gym–reveals). While the NY Times article more specifically addresses discrimination against adult individuals with physical disabilities, Charlie and I have a large archive of experiences at the indoor pool and it has occurred to me that learning how to work out at any indoor gym will be a good leisure activity for him when he is an adult.
Our everyday life is crowded with dealing with autism in particular but, as Charlie’s recent bout with a bad virus reminds us, we have to think of his overall health too: Charlie loves eating and the Risperdal that he takes has weight gain as a side effect. What if Charlie develops diabetes some day? Or high blood pressure? And has to take more medications, and to be taken to visit yet more doctors. I may sound like I’m in a panic, but autism is a lifelong disorder, and we have to think ahead now about Charlie living long and well, and healthily.
When Charlie was 5 -7 years old, he attended a weekly gymnastics class with typical children. I was his aide and he had a good time doing obstable courses, forward-rolls, balance beam, parallel bars, and just being with the other kids. Then the staff asked me to wear a staff t-shirt: Other parents had raised eyebrows at my always accompanying Charlie (which I made clear: "my son has autism"). At the next sign-up session, it was suggested (as in, insisted) that I sign Charlie up for a certain all-boys class.
We attended that class once. There were three other boys, two of whom seemed to be on the autism spectrum or to have "at least" ADHD. I smiled hard and asked for a refund.
Mens sana in corpore sano. What Charlie needs now is more specialized physical therapy, to develop his skills and–as attested by his always smiling when Jim plays catch with him—because he wants to. Charlie takes a lot of pleasure in his swimming and in riding his bike. I can only wonder at what it is like for Charlie to be taking neuroleptics and SSRI’s that he needs to help him control his OCD and SIB behaviors and his anxiety, but that change his body, too.
In many ways, giving a child medication can seem an "easier" way out than the long, hard work of teaching him to hold his hands and track that ball, to put his fingers correctly around the bat and use the end to hit the pitched ball. The recent FDA panel calling for warnings on Ritalin and other stimulants attests to this. But in both cases, our goal is keeping Charlie and his head, and his mind, safe and, yes, healthy, and the rest of him to.
Just this morning, a student who is blind told me about playing frisbee and ping-pong.
The original Latin by the satirist Juvenal (in his Satire X.356) is Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano: "One ought to pray [or beg] for a healthy mind in a healthy body." We ought to–we must–demand that our kids be as physically fit and able as they can be, as their same-aged peers and not settle for adaptive P.E. or adaptive anything. Charlie is still coughing from last week’s virus but he has been able to get through his school day, the long bus rides, and a late-afternoon verbal behavior session. As he showed when he hurried out to the bus this morning, his mind and body are ready and willing to grow and learn, and we must make sure he gets the right education to be sanus in body, mind, spirit and soul.