This, the first blog in what is planned as a monthly series, is about how understanding arises in the typical child and what may get in the way of, or obstruct, ‘normal’ development.

‘Meaning from movement’ is an expression Geoffrey Waldon used constantly; it is foundational to his theory of learning. Waldon believed that movement is the most consistent and regular source of experience and provides the structure of understanding, which develops alongside the movements.1

Piaget had previously written2 that the sensory-motor structures constitute the source of the later operations of thought. Intelligence proceeds from action, and that knowledge is essentially an active and operatory assimilation.

In simple language what both Waldon and Piaget were saying, over 30 years ago, is that it is movement which creates understanding. From the child in the womb, to the newborn, to the infant, then toddler, then child, then the adolescent, typical children move to learn. One researcher, R.W Sperry3 went so far as to say: “The sole product of brain function is motor co-ordination.”

And it is not only in development that movement matters. Many children with ASD have continued motor problems – problems in moving their bodies as they wish.

Charles Hale4 described his difficulty with actions and movements: “I think my movement disorder is most apparent in the fact that I am unable to respond to someone or something, when my intelligence would tell me to respond in an appropriate manner. For instance, when I should be smiling, sometimes I know that I am not smiling but may be even frowning. This causes me a great deal of pain and makes me look as though I am not comprehending when, in fact, I am trying to respond in an appropriate manner.”

Another individual with autism, Therese Jolliffe5 commented: “It [stress] occurs at any time, but always when I know I have to go somewhere stressful. Sometimes the pain is so bad that my whole body becomes stiff and then I am unable to move.”

 A third person with ASD, Barbara6, said: “I want people to let me be. I’ve had all kinds of people who thought they were helping me stop doing things. I have been endlessly criticized about how different I looked, criticized about all kinds of tiny differences in my behavior. There’s a point where you say to hell with it, its impossible to please you people…. No one ever tried to really understand what it was like to be me…. I wish they had accepted some of my behaviors I didn’t have any control over. You don’t criticize people with cerebral palsy.”

Professor Colwyn Trevarthen wrote7: “A primary cause of autism spectrum disorders is an error in early growth of intrinsic motive and motor systems of the brainstem during prenatal
ontogenesis.” He explains that some babies do not move in a typical manner in the womb. I am not trying to get into the thorny question of why ASD arises. Even problems in the womb may have different causes. They may be genetic, it may be that the embryo was affected by an encephalitis, (brain inflammation), or it may be that there is some musculature issue. But children who do not move in a typical manner in the womb are at risk for developmental issues, which may translate into perceptual, cognitive and emotional issues as a child or as an adolescent.

If ASD in children is caused by sensory motor problems in utero this should put a final nail in the coffin of the concept of the Refrigerator Mother.

Jodi Robledo et al.wrote8: It is essential that the exploration of autism include sensory and movement differences and involve the people who experience autism first-hand for a number of reasons: (1) professionals investigating autism from a perspective that separates mind and body may have overlooked sensory and movement differences, and/or their possible effect on behavior; (2) published first-hand accounts of autism suggest that this is a fruitful area for investigation; (3) in studying autism we need to elicit information from one of the most valuable resources—people with the label of autism.

What this does make clear is that at the first signs of atypical behaviour, which parents often recognize before the professionals, they should seek a movement based therapy and not “wait and see what happens because all children develop at different speeds.” This is indeed a time when “mother knows best.”


  1. Walter Solomon with Chris Holland and Mary Jo Middleton: Autism and Understanding, The Waldon Approach to Child Development SAGE Publications 2012 p 62
  2. Piaget J. The Psychology of the Child (Basic Books, 1969 p. 28)
  3. Sperry R. W. (1952) Neurology and the mind-brain problem. American Scientist, 40, 291-312
  4. Hale, M., and Hale, C. (1999) I had No Means to Shout. 1st books, Bloomington IN
  5. Jolliffe, T. Lansdown R (1992) Autism: A Personal Account. Communication 26 12-19
  6. Jodi Robledo, Anne M Donnellan and Karen Strandt-Conroy: An exploration of sensory and movement differences from the perspective of individuals with autism. Frontiers in Integrative neuroscience November 2012 Volume 6 Article 107
  7. Colwyn Trevarthen and Jonathan Delafield-Butt: Autism as a developmental disorder in intentional movement and affective engagement. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience July 2013 Volume 7 Article 49

Walter Solomon
September 2015