On vacation, I have a chance to relax in the beautiful countryside and reflect. I have been reading more about the child-caregiver relationship and consideringdifferent “takes” on what makes it work and not work so well.
One of the interesting researchers I have been reading is Colwyn Trevarthen. He writes that the newborn expresses his intentions to connect with his caregiver in rhythmic movements. The body movements of the infant communicate the intention to “tell a story” with the caregiver, and have a quality of “musicality” in their rhythmicity. I remember seeing Trevarthen present a film of a father holding his impossibly small premature baby, while he sang to him. The baby’s tiny foot made up and down movements rhythmically, in time with his father’s singing.
Trevarthen says that babies are born with the capacity and the intention to make meaningful connections with their caregivers and that these connections are made through purposeful, musical body movements, generated by the lower part of their brains, not their thinking brains. Babies are very sensitive to the contingency of the responses of the caregiver to their own movements and also sensitive to ways of complementing the movements of their caregivers.
One of the observations Trevarthen made that stimulated my thinking was that most of the time the babies were the leaders in the exchange with their caregivers, and the mothers were following. Much of the periodicity in the exchange between caregiver and infant originates from the infant. Infants anticipate cooperative and positive responses to the behaviors that they direct towards their caregivers, and they are very sensitive to surprises. Experiments in which the mother’s responses were deliberately made non-contingent, such as an experiment by Murray in which she played the image of the mother on film to her 2-month old baby just a minute later, so that what the mother was doing in response to the baby was just a little off, demonstrated how sensitive the infants were to the contradiction to their expectations of how their mothers would behave towards them. The babies reacted with distress and withdrawal. Of course, mothers are equally sensitive, on a non-conscious level, to non-contingent responses her baby makes to her.
That got me to wonder about the experience of the mother of an infant who is unable to join with her to create that “communicative musicality”, especially if the mother’s reactions are out of her awareness and so she cannot make sense of them. She is likely to perceive herself as doing something wrong and not understand what that is, not understand what she should be doing differently. There are many infants who may have difficulty in creating expressive movements and coordinating them with their mothers. In ASD, we know that there are different neurobiological problems that interfere with the development of the social brain. The neural circuits mediating language and behavioral flexibility do not function normally in ASD children.
Since an early theory of language development by behavioral psychologist Karl Lashley (1951), now supported by some current studies, postulates that language emerges from serial ordering of movements, and since developmental researchers have also described the synchronous coordination of purposeful rhythms as the basis for the development of communication, it seems likely that at least some children who are later diagnosed with ASD – and also some other children with neurodevelopmental disorders – would initially have disturbed expressive movements in infancy. This could be expected to have an important impact on the mother. The more we learn about early development, the more we will be able to support caregivers in making a connection with their challenging babies.