01 June 2020 - Personal stories
Emma Alter, Feldenkrais Practitioner

Working together with Edmund to help him with his walking

This article refers to the lesson that can be heard here: Walking Like a Cat

This is an amalgam of several children I have worked with, with names changed for privacy.

Edmund came to see me when he was 9, to try Feldenkrais sessions. He had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, had had cranial osteopathy since an early age, and his mother wondered if more could be done to help.

I saw him at my home studio for a trial session, to see if we would like to work together. I like to do a first session where we see if the child wants to work with me — as Feldenkrais is a learning method after all, and hands-on, so there is no point working with someone who takes a dislike to you, for whatever reason. Edmund was immediately interested in an old Chinese embroidery on the wall which has a few different groupings within the picture, and we were able to bond over that. Edmund was clearly highly intelligent, had a clear sense of humour, and what was interesting to me was how he concentrated — deeply but fleetingly. He talked constantly, about the book he was reading, about what he saw in the room, whatever took his attention in the moment, flitting from one subject to another, and back around.

I asked Edmund to walk up and down my corridor, and watched him. I noticed he walked on his toes, and there was little movement within his pelvis or torso, and as if the separate parts of himself hadn’t worked out that they were connected together. As there was little spinal movement his head moved from side to side in a large movement, which I thought was part of his inability to feel safe when on the move. From where I was looking, his toes pointed inwards, which made it harder to find movement in his spine (as his legs were rotated inwards), fixing the pelvis. His Mum and he reported that he wasn’t really doing very much sports, as he didn’t enjoy it, and children didn’t want him on their team. (Something I could personally relate to, having always been the last person chosen at games throughout my school life.)

I asked him to walk more on his tippy-toes. How high could he go on his toes and walk? When we have habits like this in childhood (something I know from personal experience) we often don’t feel what we’re doing. So it doesn’t matter how many times you are told to do something, if you can’t sense or feel it for yourself, you cannot change it for any length of time. When we change the level of awareness, all of that shifts. All we know is that ‘we’re wrong’, and it’s pretty hard to change anything from there, and feel good about yourself whilst doing it. And pretty difficult for those kind of changes to stick. We talked about where his heels were, and then on the table I worked on his sensing that his feet (the whole of the foot) were made for walking, and standing.

Once Edmund understood from the inside, for himself, that he could choose to walk on his toes, that was when the whole playing field changed for him. And as we removed any right/wrong dialogue with the questions, then he was free to experiment and find out what could work better than his current choice. It has to be safe (and even fun) to explore. This is crucial to learning. In my experience when a child feels pushed towards a goal, he/she puts the brakes on without even realising — there’s something very basic about needing to have some power or control over what they are learning — we all have this need, child or adult. So creating an environment where I start with what the child is doing, and help them improve the thing that they can already do, is creating a learning space where they feel safe to explore, to fail, and to succeed.

In subsequent lessons we worked on the connections between his feet, legs, pelvis and low back, as well as lessons to help him feel (from the inside-outwards) that his whole skeleton was designed to carry his head around, with the skeleton moving around the head, so his head could stay more ‘still’ as his spine moved around the axis of his head. Once he understood these ideas, with my input, he was able to completely change the way he walked.

With Edmund, one of my challenges was helping him maintain focus. Sometimes his Mum would intercede, which was great, he listened to her. My perception was that it was hard for him to have an internal sense of himself, or the ability to be quiet without stimulus.

One way we were able to help him lessen the talking and slow himself down was to add music, as another sensory layer. What worked for him was to listen to Bach — it’s complex, and without words. We tried different things until we got to a viol consort, Fretwork playing Bach. He liked the smoothness of the sound, it wasn’t jarring for him, and the abstraction was easier for him than singers and words. I got him to listen to the different strands of the musical line, and asked him to speak only in the same speed and feeling of the music. We went from constant engagement with outside stimuli, constant fast talking, and inability to lie down, or feel my hands, to periods of time where he was able to be quiet, lie still, and sense what I was doing with my hands — whilst listening and having a second focus on the music — I would ask him questions about what he was hearing as well as what he was sensing from my input.

My inspiration for this came from my work as a musician, violin and a Feldenkrais teacher — children often are able to listen and concentrate on sound without vision, and they have a vivid imagination as to what ‘story’ might be happening with the music. In my opinion, we often under-estimate what children can learn. The language might need tweaking, but we don’t need to dumb down unless it’s actually necessary. For Edmund, whilst he might be neuro-diverse, and think in a different way to others, he was highly intelligent, and rather needed a structure to be able to listen to what I was ‘saying’ with my hands, and hang the information on.

As musicians, we learn to split our attention: on ourselves, and others at the same time, but within one cohesive whole — we may be listening to different parts, they’re parts of the same piece. Many friends and colleagues use music to aid concentration whilst programming or other tasks that require attention — it’s almost as if listening past the music to the concentration blocks out other ‘noise’. I have in the past used music as a pain relief (used in hospitals alongside television), something to distract from what I was sensing with my body, so it made sense to me to try this with Edmund. Giving Edmund more to concentrate on helped calm his nervous system, and gave space to the parts that wanted to to be able to hear me, without me needing to ‘correct’ him, or verbally try to stop him talking.

By the end of a few sessions together Edmund was able to sense his feet and heels, and walk with the whole of each foot down. He could control the direction his toes pointed in, and when he was walking his pelvis and spine were more connected to the movement, which he was able to feel himself.

His Teaching Assistant at school who had been doing PE with him for the last couple of years said that she noticed a huge improvement in him the weeks we were working together. He went from being able to join none or half a PE class to being able to take part in most or all of his PE classes. He even played football and scored a goal! Which his mother wrote was “definitely due to your sessions, so am very keen to continue.”

He had homework between sessions — movements taken from each lesson, for him to play with. One game, about feet, which we played with throughout the sessions, and created the ‘red thread’ through the sessions, I write below, and forms part of the ATM I recorded that goes alongside this article. I have successfully used it since with other children (and adults). Try it out yourself.

Walking Like an Animal

Stand. Look down at your feet. Where do your toes point? Straight in front? Out to the side, or inwards? Are both feet the same, or does one foot turn in a different way. Don’t change anything. Walk around a little, and sense the connection between your feet, knees, hips and your back. Does your pelvis move or stay still? Is there any movement of your spine: does your spine feel like a tree trunk (without movement), or a chain (where the links can move)?

  1. Pretend you have Duck feet, and point your feet outwards a little. Gradually increase the turning whilst sensing the pelvis and low back (use your hands if you like too). Feel how it demands that the lumbar spine arch. Bend your ankles and knees — how easy it is it? And if you turn the feet more does that make it harder or easier for the ankles and knees? Walk on the spot- how does that feel? Then walk around. Include duck noises, and the ‘flapping of your wings’ if that amuses you, and helps your sense of waddling around.
  2. Pretend you are a Pigeon. And your toes point inwards. Again sense the pelvis. As you turn your feet more and more inwards, slowly, sense what happens in the low back. Return to neutral (where you started) and do this again. This time try and move your hips, sideways, and rolling forwards/backwards, and rotating about the spine. Is this getting harder or easier as you turn your feet inwards? Again walk on the spot, (with pigeon cooing) and then around. Notice what your head does, and if you like, add the head moving forwards as you put a foot down, à la pigeon.
  3. Walk like a Cat. Cats have such tidy neat feet, it seemed like the only choice for me. Feet facing forwards, toes facing forwards leading the way. Bend your ankles and knees, Move your pelvis — how many different directions can it move with the feet facing directly forwards. Feel free to make the noises of a cat to aid your imagination and sensing. If your feet are forwards, and the pelvis is free to move, can you also allow your spine and ribs to join in with walking?

Which animal allows you to move most easily? The Pigeon, with the toes pointing inwards, the Duck or the Cat?