This week, our son Jack returned to school after 6 months of medical leave. In November 2016 he developed an infection that led to PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections). As time went on, we learned that strep was not the only trigger for the flares, and he was diagnosed with both PANDAS and PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome), which can be triggered by any illness (viral or bacterial) that enters that body.
It’s been almost a year since Jack’s journey with PANDAS/PANS began and we’ve learned so much, not only about this particular pair of syndromes, but also about autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. And the vital impact caring for the nervous system can have on the brain and the body.
Most of us think of health and wellness in terms of physical health: maintaining fitness through diet and exercise. We often neglect one of the most (if not the most) essential systems in our body: the Nervous System.
What is the Nervous System?
The nervous system is a network of communication wires (neurons) that communicate signals from the brain to the body. These can be more outward processes such as eating, walking, talking, etc. More subtle but vital components of the nervous system are of the autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing, digestion, heartbeat, etc. We don’t think about any of these processes; they just “happen.”
In children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, the nervous system misfires. Messages get “lost,” and don’t reach their final destinations. Think of a cable that goes from your wall into your television. If that bundle of cables is not coated, the messages do not make it into your TV. You can program all your favorite shows, select your favorite channels, etc., but if the wiring is not sending the messages, no TV program will display.
What we discovered with Jack was while medications, therapies, and specialty care all contributed immensely to his recovery, there was something more mysterious at play as well. We noticed when he listened to soothing music his entire body would relax. We also noticed when given the option to smell something comforting to him (like an essential oil) he would breathe deeply and settle down.
Something was happening and we were learning. Eventually I realized that Jack’s nervous system needed care and attention – and that he had already been telling us this in many ways. He would cry for a weighted blanket, a preferred smell, a quiet space to sit in. We learned he wasn’t a child who couldn’t process the world; he was a child who processed too much of the world. Just as we treated his physical and medical symptoms, his nervous system needed care as well.
Nervous System Care
The idea of caring for the nervous system may feel overwhelming. You may be wondering what to do and where to start. Step one for our family was meditating together; focusing on our thoughts and reflecting on the present. We started slowly. The first day, I had Jack sit on a mat with me, cross his legs, and put his hands on his knees. That was it! Then, day by day, week by week, we increased the amount of time and focus he dedicated to meditation. Today, he is able to close his eyes, take deep breaths, and follow a guided meditation for five minutes. This is tremendous! More than that, he is learning to identify triggers that pull his nervous system out of alignment and the tools that help him calm his nervous system down.
These strategies proved to be so successful at home that we proposed it to our IEP team at his school. They were so interested in the idea that they want to incorporate meditation into his daily routine at school!
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
We are learning that this simple tool of meditative mindfulness isn’t just beneficial in a charged moment for Jack; it has lasting and profound impact on his daily life. In other words, it carries over. Jack meditating today benefits him tomorrow and the day after, and so on.
My hope in sharing this with you is that you will be able to start meditating with your child without feeling overwhelmed. And you may even be able to bring the idea to your child’s classroom teacher, IEP team, or specialists! This act of soothing the nervous system can have profound effects not only on your child, but your whole family dynamic as well.
Need Help Getting Started?
There are wonderful teachers on YouTube and various social media platforms. Our personal favorite is Yoga with Adrienne. Jack loves her soothing, calm voice. You can also click here for some great meditation apps for children from our friends at Understood.org. Finally, meditation is most successful for children when parents meditate as well. My personal favorite meditation apps that I use daily are Insight Timer and Meditation Studio.