BY CARL HOFFMAN
THE JERUSALEM WALDON CENTER’S INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO TREATING AUTISM USES MOTION TO FORM CONNECTIONS WITHIN THE BRAIN, WITH IMPRESSIVE RESULTS. A GROUNDBREAKING APPROACH TO LOOKING AT HUMAN UNDERSTANDING GIVES THOSE WITH AUTISM A NEW LEASE ON LIFE.
Walter Solomon’s mission in life began almost a half century ago, when a psychologist told him and his wife that their son Robert was severely retarded.
He recalls, “In 1968 my son was born. Two years later – they didn’t have the word ‘autism’ in Manchester, England, in those days – he was diagnosed as ‘retarded, remote, having shocking behavior,’ and we were told at the time by the educational psychologist that it would get worse. And when it got too difficult, we should put him in a home and get on with our lives.
“That boy is today married with two lovely young daughters, has a good job, and lives independently as a contributing member of his community.”
How did this child, effectively written off by the conventional therapies of 1970, grow up to become the man he is today? It was not a miracle that saved young Robert, but rather a fortuitous meeting between his parents and a doctor who realized that Robert’s problem was not psychological, involving abstract theories of the mind, but rather a neurological problem involving the structure and working of the actual, physical brain.
Two weeks after listening to the educational psychologist’s diagnosis and grim predictions, the Solomons were fortunate enough to meet Dr. Geoffrey Waldon, a British neurologist who had spent some 30 years observing and treating children with learning disabilities. Through extensive observation of young children in free play, he attempted to identify the basic processes and mechanisms that shape human understanding, before culture comes along to further shape, or misshape, the child.
Waldon used the word understanding to mean the development of one’s cognitive, social and emotional abilities. And the basic premise of Waldon theory is that all human understanding arises directly from the organizing of patterns of movement in time and space; that “meaning comes from movement.”
The Solomons began using Waldon’s methodology on their son, a few minutes a day, every day. “Then life went on as life goes on,” says Solomon, poetically. “Robert improved, slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly. There’s no miracle in this. There’s a lot of hard graft in it. He went to high school, and to college, and he still continues to improve.”
And Walter Solomon, a baby clothing salesman in Manchester at the time of his first encounter with Dr. Waldon, and later a sales representative for an Israeli laser company in the US, has since developed into a recognized authority on autism, the author of numerous scholarly papers and a book, Autism and Understanding: The Waldon Approach to Child Development, as well as a leading practitioner of the Waldon
Approach – with a newly opened treatment center in Jerusalem.
So what is autism exactly, and how can it be treated? “In my opinion, it is a neurological condition affecting the brain,” Solomon says. “And what we describe as ‘autism,’ again in my opinion, is a set of behaviors that arise because of the initial problem – whether it be a brain problem, a lack of oxygen at birth problem, an environmental problem. There can be many causes. But fundamentally, it’s a brain problem.”
And Solomon pointedly insists that the condition presents itself in many ways. “The saying is, ‘When you’ve seen one autistic child, you seen one autistic child.’ They are all different.”
He adds, “The origin of autistic behaviors is failure of the child to move in ways that typical children move. And there are people – really good scientists – who believe that this can be seen as early as in the womb. All early understanding comes from movement.
“Have you got children? If you can remember back to when they were one and two years old, sitting in their high chair, picking things up, putting them down, banging them together, throwing them, putting them in their mouths, scraping them on the table, and so on. Every time they make a movement, it’s slightly different, because you can’t repeat anything exactly. And that is how they learn. If they don’t move, they don’t have all this experience in learning.
“What Geoffrey Waldon’s brilliance was, was in identifying that as the issue and developing a methodology that causes the child to move. Let’s call it the student because the person may be 30 or 50 or nine, or one. It doesn’t matter. We look at the development age of the child, and we cause the child to make all the movements they probably missed when they were toddlers.
“Movement. That’s what we do in the Waldon Approach. Repetitive, very simplistic movements.”
ACCORDING TO the Israeli Association of Child Development and Rehabilitation, affiliated with the Meuhedet Health Fund, autism rates have been increasing in Israel over the past decade. In comparison with worldwide increases, however, autism here is relatively low. Worldwide diagnosis of autism has been reported at around 1 percent, in contrast to recent studies from Israel reporting an occurrence of 0.48% for children one to 12 years of age.
In any case, Solomon stresses that the methodology he uses can applied not only to small children, but also to older children, adolescents and adults. He says, “I saw a boy this morning, 12 years old, who came in very angry, very agitated. The mother said he wanted to do something else and she wouldn’t let him. He came in almost violent. I started working with the boy, moving things around…
“What we’re doing is connecting the two sides of the brain, as well as developing new neural pathways. The brain, as we all know today, is plastic. The brain is more plastic when the child is one and two, and continues to be plastic throughout our lives. So my job is to cause the children to move in ways that fill the gaps in their understanding. And this boy, by the time I’d spent 45 minutes working with him, was calm and peaceful, and able to carry out the work on his own, without my intervention – or with only minor intervention.”
Solomon also relates his experience with a 50-year-old autistic woman, whom he saw and treated for a year and a half, 45 minutes a week, and made, he says “a significant difference in her life.” He states, “I’m not at all interested in the chronological age of the people in front of me; I’m interested in their developmental age. And I can always help them.”
So how did an erstwhile salesman of baby wear, and later of medical laser equipment, become an expert on autism, motor deficits, neural paths and learning disabilities? And what road led him to operate Israel’s first and only Waldon Approach treatment center?
Solomon, now a very youthful 79, recalls, “Here’s what happened: I spent
my life selling lasers, moving to America, coming back here, being married, being divorced, second wife. We were all friends, and both wives died within a year of each other. At that stage I decided to change my life. So I moved to France and I told everyone I was going to write in the mornings, paint in the afternoons and drink red wine every evening. And I did, for five years.”
He also spent that time immersed in research. Aside from extensive reading, this involved international correspondence and meetings with people who had known Geoffrey Waldon, who had worked with him, or whose children had worked with him. He visited schools that had worked with his approach, in Iceland, and in Slovenia where, Solomon says, “They accept it as the norm, and they can’t believe it isn’t the norm everywhere else.”
The immediate result of those five years in France – aside from several paintings and, presumably, a respectable amount of wine drinking – was his book Autism and Understanding. Solomon returned to England for a deeper understanding of the Waldon method. He went to one of the three schools then using the approach and refined his skills by treating the school’s autistic children. “I did it, and found that I loved doing it, and that I was good at it.”
Solomon then went to a conference on autism in Jerusalem and met Prof. Steven Gross of the Feuerstein Institute. “He said if I ever came to live in Jerusalem I should look him up. So I took that as a job offer and made aliya,” Solomon recalls with abundant laughter.
Today he works at the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every Wednesday at the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children on the Mount of Olives. “And there I work entirely with Palestinian children and Palestinian therapists,” he says.
And, when not giving training workshops in Europe and the US to teach the Waldon Approach to others, Solomon spends the rest of his time at his new treatment facility, The Jerusalem Waldon Center. A child comes to the center once a week. Each meeting, lasting up to an hour, is an intensive period of play activity, designed to help increase the child’s drive and motivation. It strengthens the connection between expenditure of effort and the pleasure that results from “doing.” Over time, the positive experiences in the lessons incline the child to become more active and open to engagement, both on their own and with others, and to be less inclined to use anxiety and defensive behavior.
The first meeting is free of charge. Every subsequent meeting is NIS 250, with special arrangements for parents who cannot afford this fee.
Asked whether he hopes to see the Waldon Approach used throughout Israel, Solomon replies with an almost missionary zeal, “It’s my prayer. I’m doing everything humanly possible. It’s all I do. This is my life, to spread the word. Geoffrey Waldon died without publishing anything. He wrote a lot, but he published nothing. At the time, he was sort of scorned by his peers. He was before his time.
“Now is the time that people are understanding his perspective. The more children I see, the more they will tell their friends and they will tell their schools. What I want to do is go into schools and autism centers and give presentations and demonstrations, and let people know what I do. My goal is not to have it go from Rosh Pina to Eilat, but from Jerusalem and around the world, back to Jerusalem.”
For further information about the Jerusalem Waldon Center: 050-430-4583 or www.jerusalemwaldoncenter.org . For a deeper understanding of the methodology, visit www.waldonapproach.org.
‘Geoffrey Waldon’s brilliance was in identifying a methodology that causes the child to move… What we’re doing is connecting the two sides of the brain, and developing new neural pathways.’ (Reuters)
At the new Jerusalem Waldon Center, where a weekly visit involves an intensive period of play and activity, designed to increase drive and motivation. (Photos: Courtesy)
Walter Solomon and a laughing child at his center: Strengthening the link between expenditure of effort and the pleasure that results from ‘doing.’
Solomon on how it all began: ‘In 1968 when my son was born, they didn’t have the word “autism.” They diagnosed him as “retarded, remote, having shocking behavior.”’