Some years ago, I had occasion to work with a number of children in an institution for children with Down syndrome. When the children were shown the movements and exercises, they were eager to copy them, and they were proud when they succeeded in doing so. However, because of the children’s disabilities, I used a combination of exercise and massage, rather than exercise alone in this project. The program went on for about eight months, with an average of five half-hour sessions a week, for a total of 157 lessons. At the end of eight months, the children with Down syndrome who had taken part were found by the institution’s physician to have progressed dramatically in behavior, comprehension, appearance, and motor coordination.
For example, both autistic children and children with Down syndrome often make certain compulsive movements, such as knocking their heads or backs against walls. In my opinion, this is the body’s way of trying to help muscles that are not functioning properly. Based on my experience working with these children, I believe their compulsive movements are an expression of their bodies’ natural needs, and should not be suppressed.
Instead, if you give a child who engages in head-banging vigorous head and forehead massages, he or she will stop the compulsive movements, and will demand massages instead. If a child bangs his or her back against the wall around the shoulder blades, it is a sign that the abdominal muscles, which are activated by the front sphincter, are not working well enough and need to be strengthened. Weakness of the front muscles usually makes the antagonistic muscles-in this case, the back muscles, which are activated by the rear sphincter-work too hard. This shows up in disquiet and aggressiveness. A gentle pounding massage between shoulder blades quickly enables such a child to calm down, and even fall asleep easily. (Every mother is familiar with the pats on the back she uses to put her baby to sleep.) Rubbing a child’s palm in circular motion with one’s index finger also calms a child down, because the muscles of the palm also are connected with the front sphincter. Once the front sphincter and the muscles are linked with it are strengthened, children become quieter, friendlier, and more cooperative.
Some of the children with Down syndrome whom I worked with began to learn to talk, which had previously been impossible because their tongues were slack, wide, and hung outside their mouths. After exercising, most of the children could keep their tongues inside their mouths. In the children who suffered from spastic movements, these movements disappeared almost entirely. The children’s eyes, which had been expressionless to start with, became alert and lively. Some of the children learned to walk by themselves, others with support.