Primitive reflexes. They have their time and their place. Take the Asymmetrical Tonic Reflex (ATNR), for example. This reflex coordinates the extension of an arm and a leg in response to the head being turned in their direction. The ATNR is responsible for all the kicks and wiggles we feel long before our children are ever born. This reflex assists infants during the birthing process, getting them into the proper position. And once they’re born, it ensures their head tilts to the side while they’re on their stomachs to keep their airways clear, and is the first step toward developing hand-eye-coordination. Without it, babies face a lot of problems. But the ATNR is only supposed to be present until six months of age. When this reflex isn’t replaced by more complex functions, the child is faced with a whole host of learning problems.
So how can you tell if your child’s struggles in school stem from a retained ATNR? There are some distinct symptoms to watch out for.
Can’t Cross the Midline
The most distinct sign of a retained ATNR is the inability to cross the midline. The midline is an imaginary line that runs vertically down the center of the body. A child who has trouble crossing the midline can’t perform tasks that require their right hand to perform on the left side of their body and vice versa. It’s also difficult for them to perform a task that requires both hands to work together. This is because the two sides of the brain aren’t properly communicating with one another.
We tend to imagine how wonderful it would be to be ambidextrous. Being truly ambidextrous probably would be. But children with a retained ATNR use both hands because they are unable to cross the midline and they haven’t developed a dominant hand. Naturally, the brain determines a dominant hand that becomes skilled and masters our fine motor movements and the other hand is less skilled and just assists. When a dominant hand isn’t developed, both hands tend to remain unskilled. This causes issues with any tasks that require fine motor skills or dexterity.
Lacking a dominant hand consequentially leads to poor handwriting skills. The decrease in fine motor skills makes it hard for them to perform the movements necessary to form letters. The inability to cross the midline is also a major roadblock. They tend to switch hands depending on the side of the paper they are on or the letter they are trying to write. They struggle to draw diagonal or horizontal lines because they both require crossing the midline. They also develop coping mechanisms like tilting their paper or adjusting the paper off to one side so they don’t have to cross the midline to perform the tasks.
Reading requires good visual tracking skills. Visual tracking helps children follow the same line across the page. Children who cannot cross the midline tend to hesitate or lose their place when their eyes shift from the words in front of the left side of the body to the words in front of the right side because doing so requires the two sides of the brain to communicate.
Poor Motor Skills
Fine motor skills aren’t the only ones to suffer with a retained ATNR. Gross motor skills are affected as well. Throwing, catching and even walking can be a struggle when the two sides of the brain aren’t communicating. Sports of any kind take coordinated motor skills and usually require the ability to cross the midline so these children tend to avoid them or lack the skills to be considered proficient at them.
The natural rhythm for walking is the right arm swings forward when the left foot steps and vice versa. Children who retain this reflex and cannot cross the midline tend to swing the left arm with the left leg and the right arm with the right leg. This gives them the appearance of walking like your stereotypical robot. It’s also a sign that other children tend to notice and can lead to teasing or exclusion because they behave differently.
Doing up buttons, brushing teeth and hair, putting on socks and shoes. All of these tasks require crossing the midline or cooperation of both hands so it goes without saying that these kids are going to struggle with them. It’s common for them to avoid these tasks or continue to rely on a parent to do them instead well after the expected time for them to take over.
So many tasks in life require the ability to cross the midline so it’s important that this reflex goes dormant or “disappears.” Working to build the functions to override this reflex is a huge part of what can be worked on to help children succeed in school.