Smiling is a Practice for Learning and Development
Think smiles before eye-contact
A baby’s smile is one of the first important milestones in his development. According to the article Baby’s First Social Smile, “starting between 6 and 8 weeks of life, babies develop a “social smile” — an intentional gesture of warmth meant just for you.”
Thank you Morpheus Nag for this beautiful picture of a mother and her baby. We can sense the warmth and caring. We can imagine the many precious smiles shared between them!
We have enjoyed this social smile with our grandson who turned 1 year old in September 2022. No words are needed! The smile is precious and speaks a lot! The smile is a key part of the learning process. I vividly remember the smiles that tell us that our grandson is enjoying an experience and learning.
Yet, we seem to completely overlook smiles when discussing development of neurodivergent children. When I observe many neurodivergent children and adults, they smile infrequently. Sensory overwhelm, motor planning problems, working memory and executive functioning challenges, systems that are not right for the child, people who do not understand, accept, and teach them with love, difficulty in forming peer relationships, and other factors create considerable stress for the parent and for the child. No wonder, many lose their smile.
How much does your child smile during the day?
Our Journey to Smiling as a Practice
We have been blessed in many ways. When Ananth was a young child, I knew very little about autism. While we might have missed out on the early intervention opportunities that parents seek out today, my lack of awareness was also a blessing in disguise in an important way. I played with Ananth as I did with Aneesh. I was not worried about autism or trying to address the gap as fast as possible. Our older son loved reading, Ananth responded to drawing, writing etc. As a parent, I instinctively tuned in to these differences and engaged each child depending on what worked.
2004 Starting Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and Homeschooling
Soon after learning about autism, we discovered Relationship Development Intervention (RDI). Our RDI consultant, Joyce Albu, was creative and playful. I also loved the RDI book. Even though Dr. Gutstein moved away from this activity book approach, I found the book extremely useful. Ananth and I enjoyed many playful moments because of the activities and games in the book. Ananth also started developing a sense of humor because of the games we played.
Description: Designed for younger children, typically between the ages of two and eight, this comprehensive set of enjoyable activities emphasizes foundation skills such as social referencing, regulating behavior, conversational reciprocity and synchronized actions.
Ananth made much progress and wanted to attend a school. We found what we thought was a perfect match, a Waldorf school whose movement integrated, arts-integrated approach should have been a perfect fit for Ananth. It turned out to be a costly mistake. Slowly, Ananth started experiencing high anxiety which we did not recognize and he did not know how to communicate. By the end of the second year in the school, Ananth had shut down and it took us more than two years to dig ourselves out of the mess.
2010 Practicing Emotional Regulation with Eric
We connected with PACE Place and started their Family Immersion model. We worked with a brilliant therapist, Eric Hamblen. He was highly creative and funny. He had invented a simple yet highly effective device, the ConnectorRx. We played many fun games with the Connector. Ananth and dad would put dishes away with the Connector. They would go all around the house, drumming on the dishes and putting them away. Well, at least some of the dishes were put in the right places. The chores did not get done but we had fun! The Connector was also popular with children and Ananth had fun with peers (all neurotypical) because we had a bunch of fun props (bean bags, scooter, connector etc.) that all of them enjoyed!
2012 Starting MNRI and Bharatanatyam
Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration (MNRI) and Bharatanatyam built motor foundations and the capacity for expression. Slowly, we started learning more and the smile was back!
2018 -2020 Preparing for the Arangetram
These were fun years. Ananth enjoyed going to Dr. Kamakshi Memorial Hospital where he was doing his diploma in Medical Records and Hospital Documentation. Then, he would go for dance practice or piano lesson.
Then, the pandemic began. His arangetram was postponed. Many other experiences made Ananth experience high stress. The smile was much less frequent.
2022 Smile Brightly and Dance
In October 2022, we connected with Shri Ujwal Jagadeesh at Ramana Maharshi Center for Learning (RMCL). His teaching approach of thinking of God’s power within you, smiling brightly and dancing is simple yet powerful. The fact that these practices are embedded in the daily aduvu (structured movement patterns that are the building blocks of Bharatanatyam) practice is important. Aduvus are a part of the daily practice. If smiles are built into aduvus, it paves the way for consistent, sustained practice of emotional expression.
Smile is a practice. Smile is a habit to cultivate.
Thank you Ujwal for slowly nudging Ananth in the direction of practicing smiles daily. Hopefully, Ananth will not lose the smile again!
Dear parents, I wrote this article to give you a deeper understanding of the development of our Smile Brightly and Learn initiative for 2023. We invite you to join us in these adventures. Is your child smiling today?
Smile Brightly and Learn 2023
The right environments make it much easier for parents and child to smile. RASA, HashHackCode, and SpecialSaathi are three eco-systems where Ananth is accepted, included, encouraged, and nudged to develop himself.
Being a #happiestsaathi is a choice. It is a practice. #Smilebrightlyanddance is our daily practice. Thank you Dr. Ambika Kameshwar, Vaishnavi Poorna, Usha Sankaran, Ujwal Jagadeesh , Manu Sekar, Shilpi Mayank-Awasthi, and parents for being here and encouraging Ananth in his varied adventures!
Dr. Ambika Kameshwar organizes Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD) practice according to 4Es – Exploration, Experience, Expression, and Enjoyment. Enjoyment caught my eye. Not a single therapist has included enjoyment in their vocabulary! Not a single educator I know seems to include enjoyment. Let us put enjoyment back in our glossary.
Yes, there will be daily struggles. But that does not mean we cannot be happy and enjoy our experiences with our children. On to #Happiestsaathis 2023!