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Alexander Technique on the Curriculum

 

Eileen Armstrong describes her work with adults with special needs (first published in Statnews, May 2008).

 

I qualified as a schoolteacher in 1974 and soon moved into Special Education, working with children with severe learning disabilities. A few years later I began work in a new venture, teaching adults in a residential hospital. This was a pioneering unit, and its brief was the delivery of an educational input to adults who had missed out because of the nature of their disabilities.

 

After a couple of years I became very dissatisfied with our service. Our interventions seemed to me to be fairly superficial and not making a great deal of difference. It was at this point that I remembered coming across the work of Dr Geoffrey Waldon. His theory was that from birth, a human being begins to learn about him/herself and the immediate environment by means of the information conveyed by the sensory receptors and decoded by the central nervous system. The main source of this information is the organism's own movements in space. "At the heart of Waldon theory is the premise that all human understanding arises directly from the organising of patterns of movement in time and space; that meaning comes from movement." (www.waldonassociation.org.uk)

 

I had visited Dr Waldon and observed him working with children but had not really understood his theory of learning. Now the time was ripe for another meeting. Several colleagues came with me and we soon took on and developed his ideas. In practice this required a lot of hands-on work with people who had not developed normal movement patterns, and although deeply rewarding it was exhausting and physically punishing for the staff.

 

Around this time I had my first Alexander Technique lesson, and thank goodness I did. It helped me to cope with a physically heavy workload and years later led me to try to introduce it to the curriculum after I qualified as an Alexander teacher.

 

I now work at Vine, an educational provision by Leeds City Council for adults with moderate to severe learning disabilities, for one day a week as an Alexander teacher.

 

As it says in the STAT publicity, "Learning the Alexander Technique can help prevent or alleviate conditions associated with undue tension or poor posture." This is equally true for people with learning disabilities. Their problems may include abnormal muscle tone resulting in movement difficulties and distorted body shape; inability to express need or deal with stress, which might present as behavioural problems; heavy reliance on habitual and stereotyped movement patterns which, although self-comforting, are very limiting.

 

As the Alexander Technique is about conscious control, there is a crucial difference in approach with pupils who have significant developmental delay, as their level of understanding may preclude co-operation. Generally, speech is not useful in facilitating the lesson and, in fact, is a distraction. When pupils may not understand what is being said it is more effective to focus on direct hands-on work. However, where it is appropriate I may say something like, "look at the oranges, now look at me, now look out of the window, what can you see?" to try and get movement and flexibility in the neck (among other things).

 

By addressing what and how we think we can bring about changes in our use. This cannot be done directly with people with severe learning disabilities but I have found that hands-on Alexander work can effect a change even when there is no discernible understanding or active co-operation by the pupil. Taking cerebral palsy* as an example, as muscles gradually release more movement is possible; feedback to the brain is changed and, as alignment improves, perception of the world can be more accurate. Mood can also be improved.

 

There can be setbacks. One of my pupils who was progressing well suffered a series of epileptic seizures which had a negative effect on his use. However, I have found that in general, the Alexander Technique is beneficial for a range of students attending Vine. It is also wonderfully compatible with the Waldon Approach in trying to lead people into a new and better manner of use.

 

* Cerebral palsy is a motor function disorder normally resulting in abnormal muscle tone e.g. spasticity. (Mosby's Medical Dictionary 2006, 7th ed. Mosby Inc. St. Louis)

 

2008 Eileen Armstrong

 

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