As Turtle Wing Foundation concludes their eighth year of “helping children with learning challenges in rural areas achieve their full potential,” there are still many in the rural communities the foundation serves who don’t fully understand what Turtle Wing does. As the foundation embarks on its ninth year, helping citizens who reside within its service area of Fayette, Colorado, Lavaca and surrounding counties more fully comprehend their mission and therefore utilize their services is a goal for Turtle Wing. The first of three programming areas which will be explained in the next few weeks is Early Intervention. The foundation defines this timeframe as birth through preschool.
(The following is based on a conversation Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Dr. Evian Gordon, Chairman and CEO of Brain Resource.) The development of the brain is a fascinating and essential aspect of child development. The science behind the brain provides parents and practitioners valuable insight into why early intervention is so important for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. At birth, a child’s brain is unfinished. It develops as they experience the world through seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling the environment. The natural, simple, loving encounters with adults that occur through the day, such as a caregiver singing, smiling, talking and rocking their baby, are essential to this process. All of these encounters with the outside world affect the child’s emotional development and shape how their brain becomes wired and how it will work. The experiences of babies have long-lasting effects on their ability to learn and regulate their emotions. When there is an absence of appropriate teaching and learning opportunities in the baby’s environment, the brain’s development can be affected and there are more likely to be sustained negative effects. Conversely, if we can provide ample learning opportunities, we can facilitate brain development. Let’s understand how and why. Learning is about connection. A baby is born with more than 85 billion neurons in its brain. Neurons are nerve cells in the brain that transmit information between each other through chemical and electrical signals via synapses thereby forming neural networks, a series of interconnected neurons. This is what is meant by “the wiring of the brain” and “neurons that fire together, wire together”. As an infant experiences something or learns something for the first time, a strong neural connection is made. If this experience is repeated, the connection is reactivated and becomes strengthened. If the experience is not repeated, connections are removed. In this way, the brain “prunes” what is not necessary and consolidates the connections that are necessary. During infancy and the first years of childhood, there is significant loss of neural pathways as the brain starts to prune away what it doesn’t believe it will need to function. The earlier in a child’s development that we create that first, correct learning experience the stronger those behaviors and skills are secured in the brain. Children with developmental delays often experience the wiring of neurons together in a manner that is “unhelpful”, causing them to struggle with communication, social skills and other activities. These “unhelpful” connections need to be changed, which adds to the challenge and takes time. Technically, learning cannot be undone in the brain, but amazingly, with stimulation, the brain has the ability to re-process new pathways and build circuits that are helpful and functional. The brain has a remarkable capacity for change and adaptation, but timing is crucial. The earlier we create the correct connections in a child’s brain, the stronger those behaviors and skills are secured in the brain. Intervention is best during early childhood when there are 50 percent more connections between neurons than exist in the adult brain. If we correctly understand a child’s skill deficits and design a program that appropriately stimulates the neurons in the targeted weakened areas of the brain, we can exercise and strengthen those areas of the brain to develop language, social skills etc.
Turtle Wing partners with families in need to help access necessary assessments, offer referrals to local providers and assist where necessary with funding of insurance or local programs won’t cover the fees. Turtle Wing has been providing Early Intervention, Supplemental Services and Community Education & Advocacy programming to children and families with academic, social-emotional, behavioral and/or developmental needs since 2012. Annually, over 325 children are receiving direct services with thousands more benefiting indirectly through education and advocacy work. For more information contact Susie Shank at (979)505-5090, visit the Turtle Wing Facebook page @turtlewingfoundation, or the website www.turtlewingfoundation.org.