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Dolly Lowery: What Every Parent Should Know About Brain Development

By: Isaac Van Wesep

Today we have a very special edition of our family executive function blog: an interview with Dolly Lowery, neurodiverse adult, parent of neurodiverse children, and CEO of BrainyAct, a company at the cutting edge of brain science and learning. I had the pleasure of meeting Dolly and experiencing the BrainyAct technology at her clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Once I started learning about the science behind BrainyAct, I was amazed by how many of my own family’s experiences became clear. The science of balance, motor control, and executive function is fascinating and must-know for parents of young children. Today it is my pleasure to share my recent interview with Dolly with you. 

BrainyAct® provides tech-enabled, patent-pending therapy programs delivered via gamification for neurological disorders such as Autism, Dyslexia, ADHD, and Sensory Processing disorder. BrainyAct activates the underdeveloped areas of the brain through exercises that strategically target a child’s balance, body awareness, gross/fine motor, rhythm and timing, visual motor perception, and memory.

Interview

IDVW (Isaac Van Wesep)

Welcome Dolly Lowery. Thank you for joining me today. I am so excited to talk to you. I will never forget the day I visited your clinic in Minneapolis, where I experienced your intervention for learning differences – BrainyAct – for the first time. That was when I really understood the connection between our motor skills and our cognitive skills. And that’s what we are here to talk about today: the connection between balance, motor skills development, and learning. Would you mind please introducing yourself to us?

DL (Dolly Lowery)

Thank you, Isaac. I am Dolly Lowery, CEO and co-founder of BrainyAct by Kinuu. Our specialty is remediation of autism, dyslexia, and executive function through motor coordination and balance training. I am a dyslexic myself. My brother also was a dyslexic. He didn’t learn to read till he was 29. So I grew up in a family with neurodiversity. Among my own children, my second son was severely dyslexic and also had mild autism.

Headshot of Dolly Lowery

I spent about 12 years in clinics with my own son and I had the ability to see many different types of therapy that were working different brain functions.

IDVW

Can you tell us a little bit more about how you came to be interested in the relationship between balance, our senses, motor skills, and cognition?

DL

I spent about 12 years in clinics with my own son and I had the ability to see many different types of therapy that were working different brain functions. And at the same time, I could see how he was improving from doing these different therapies. I didn’t want to see him struggle. No parent does, whether their child is neurotypical or neurodiverse. We want to make sure sure our kids have the best education experience possible. And so throughout this process, I realized that for many learning disabilities, the root cause of them is in the sensory motor system and how it integrates to the cognitive system. So that’s how I became really passionate about this space.

IDVW

How are sensory, motor, and cognitive skills related?

DL

 

So, how these functions relate to each other is that our brains are like a pyramid of development from the bottom to the top. At the lowest level, we have our senses, which is balance, primarily. Balance is the motor, balance is underneath every skill we acquire. so it’s crucial to brain development. It’s like the inner ear is your balance organ, super important.

And then you have your muscles and joints and your touch and sense, you know, light, touch, sound, et cetera. That’s all early motor development.

And then the next layer up above that one is rhythm and timing, gross motor movements, directionality, spatial awareness. So those are all your big muscle movements. Those two combined, it’s the lower brain, create your move and do part of the brain.

And then you connect them to the think and feel, which are the upper portions, which is Your visual system is next, so that’s eye-hand coordination, auditory perception, fine motor, visual tracking.

And then you move up to your cognitive functions, which is last. And there’s kind of two areas of cognitive functions. So you’ve got response time, reasoning, auditory and visual memory. And then you’ve got those higher cognitive functions, which is where reflection sciences fits in. And those are like your working memory, cognitive flexibility and self -control, right? So cognition can really be in two buckets, but it’s really the executive of the brain.

And when a motor function is missed, it’s going to impact everything that comes after that. So when you have a child that misses crawling, they’re going to miss riding a bike, throwing a football, cutting their own food, because they don’t get the weight bearing on their hands. And then it’s going to impact cognitive functions, learning functions, everything after that. Interesting. Interesting. So it’s really important that parents understand that we have two sides of our brain. We have a left and right, but we also have a bottom and a top. And the bottom, just as the left and right have to be connected to learn, the bottom and the top have to be connected to learn.

child interacting with BrainyAct

IDVW

This sounds like something that any athletic coach could have told us since time immemorial! But in terms of the science, is this new science or has it been around for a long time?

DL

I think it is relatively new. Not in the science fields per se, because it’s been around forever, but I don’t think it’s well known among parents and some educators are still learning about it. I think today, if you talk to teachers or schools with dyslexia, for example, they offer a reading program. It takes three years, it’s very time consuming, it’s one -on -one. A reading problem, if you look at the science literature, is bilateral coordination, visual motor, and balance.

And if you correct those three things that are the precursors to reading, it becomes easier for that child to learn to read. Without those integrated into the nervous system, into the brain, into the body, their eyes are skipping, they’re reversing, the visual motor system, the balance system is not working together, and they don’t have the bilateral coordination needed.

IDVW

That makes a lot of sense to me just from my personal experience. When I was testing the BrainyAct device, practicing proprioception, and I had to trace the rabbit around the figure eight in the air, with my foot out in front of me, I could feel my brain being worked like a muscle at the gym. And I could tell the amount of thinking effort that I had to make to do that, combined with then the physical effort, I could just feel the feedback loop working and strengthening my brain, in terms of both thinking and doing.

DL

A great example comes from Sam Wang and Peter Sai about learning to drive a car. In that example, when you’re learning to drive a car for the first time, or a let’s say a bike, there’s so much to think about. Visual, motor, perception, coordination, right? And a neurotypical person, it’s going to be scary at first for everybody, right? But once they learn that bike-riding motor program, it becomes like a code in your brain. You could learn to ride a bike, then 20 years later get on a bike and just ride it. You’re going know your motor program is right there. Well, for a kid with a learning disability or a young adult, those motor programs don’t encode as naturally as a neurotypical kid. It takes longer because of those brain connections that weren’t made during development. So you could have the tale of two kids. Neurotypical kid is going to hit all their motor milestones, primitive reflexes, army crawling, regular crawling, visual motor, gross motor, rhythm and timing, working memory, inhibition and self -control. Total neurotypical.

But when you have the neurodiverse kid they miss one primitive reflex, then two primitive reflexes. Then they miss army crawling, or regular crawling. Then that becomes a reading issue, then a handwriting issue, an emotional regulation issue, a sports issue, lower confidence, felling less smart as they get older.

When a motor function is missed, it's going to impact everything that comes after that. So when you have a child that misses crawling, they're going to miss riding a bike, throwing a football, cutting their own food. And then it's going to impact cognitive functions, learning functions, everything after that.

IDVW

Wow. When you put it like that it makes me reflect back on the lives of the people around me, maybe even myself! Well, now that we have all of this knowledge, what is the most promising way to help neurodiverse children get back on track?

DL

I think the most exciting area new in science is that some schools are adding a neuromotor cognitive director level positions. They’re realizing that neuromotor development is critical to success, whether you have a neurotypical kid or a neurodiverse kid. I believe that we know the science of neuroplasticity works. But it is important to know how to support and open up neuroplasticity in people, so their brains can respond to interventions. For example, the order of exercises is critical. But neuroplasticity can happen at any age, at any ability level. And it does allow kids – with the right schedule, repetition, frequency, and intensity levels – kids can recover handwriting, reading, riding a bike, cutting their own food for the first time, folding laundry, emotional regulation, cognitive skills. Those can be recovered in six months with proper training, with the right targeted training. That’s exciting to me.

IDVW

That’s an amazing result. I know you have been able to help many children recover these skills.  Interventions that work reliably in special education are very valuable.

DL

I agree, good interventions are very valuable. In the U.S., for example, $461 billion is spent each year on autism alone. California spends $12 billion on dyslexia. The current therapies are addressing the symptoms – reading, handwriting – by doing more reading and handwriting work, or trying to teach emotional skills when the nervous system underneath it is dysregulated. By addressing the root causes we can not only help kids more effectively, but save a lot of money, too. That’s families saving money, states and school districts saving money.

IDVW

So when you mentioned a child can recover the ability to ride a bike, like a developmental motor development stage, army crawling, regular crawling, riding a bike, I would have thought riding a bike is one of these foundational things and you learn to ride a bike so that you can do these other things. But if I understand you correctly you’re saying some children need help getting to the point where they can ride a bike. What are the kinds of things that if a parent has a child who needs that extra help getting to the next developmental milestone?

DL

Any parent can work on balance activities at home. that would be number one. You can put a piece of painter’s tape on the floor, six feet long, in the kitchen, and have them walk forwards and backwards with their eyes open, eyes closed, heel-toe, right? Heel-toe makes it difficult, kind of like practicing a balance beam. A trampoline is another great tool to get that inner ear balance, vestibular system stimulated. Bilateral coordination would be another thing that’s huge to riding a bike because you have to coordinate your arms and legs. So any cross crawling, I mean, there’s tons of activities you can do for bilateral coordination. And the last one would be visual. So taking maybe a kickball and playing catch, but throwing it up in the air and down. So their visual system has to go up and down, left to right, and then making the ball smaller and smaller. So maybe a tennis ball.

So those three things, once they can master those three things, they can ride a bike. Might take time, but they can ride a bike.

IDVW

Have there been any studies that show improved learning outcomes when children practice these motor skills?

DL

There are many studies on physical activities that lead to brain development that lead to academic outcomes. There’s a ton on websites we have a long list of resources or material on our website. Under our science page there’s probably, I don’t know, 80 studies that are quoted. I think the best research is really coming from Catherine Stoodley at American University, Jeremy Schwaman at Harvard. Sam Wing, Peter Tsai. There’s just tons of great research that we have quoted on our website.

IDVW

Any study in particular that you think maybe we should cover for our families that they might be particularly interested in? Or do you just recommend that families check out that page?

kid playing hopscotch on brainyact
Child practicing on a BrainyAct device

DL

Well, there is one article called the Harvard Research Shows How the Cerebellum Can Regulate Thoughts. So it’s a quick read, a couple of pages. So there is a quick read that will educate families. We also have a really good reading blog on our site that talks about what skills are necessary for reading and how reading can happen naturally.

IDVW

Anything else that you wanted parents to know about the science of sensory motor balance, coordination, and its relation to learning?

DL

The most important message is that there is always hope. No matter where their child is today or starts, they can gain skills to help them struggle less. I think that’s the number one thing parents need to know. I want my child to struggle less. I want him or her to feel confident. And so there is hope, it does require effort. It takes 21 hours at a minimum to create new pathways, neural pathways in the brain. So it’s not a one day fix, but compared to a reading program or some other behavioral programs that take three to 10 years, 40 hours is a very small amount of time. Obviously, the more severe challenges, there are things that could take eight months to a year of intensive motor therapy. So it really does depend upon the kid, and it does require the discipline to do it. it’s like going to the gym.

IDVW

It sounds like if my child’s struggling to learn how to ride a bicycle, and I just keep trying to put them on the bike over and over again, I might need to go back and do some of these other preparatory activities, these skill building activities that you’ve talked about. That’s starting to sound like a lot of work and a lot of planning for me as a parent. And I don’t know if I have the wherewithal to do all of that. So are my choices then to either not do that and my child won’t ride a bike or, what? What are my options then? If I don’t feel like I have the wherewithal to put a piece of tape in the kitchen and play catch, and the balance beam game, and stuff like that.

DL

The next couple of things they could do is occupational therapy, but it has to be intensive two to three times a week. BrainyAct is going into schools and clinics, and you can get it for your home, so those are options. There are things that parents can do if they want to, and if they can, and the barrier really is education about what to do and then like the time. Many practice activities don’t require a lot of materials, so it’s not really about having access to fancy materials. Learning to balance or playing catch and things like that are really about the time and the knowledge of what kinds of activities are the ones, and also knowing where our children are in their development. So if what they need is a certain kind of practice in order to be able to ride a bike, that’s one thing. But another child might be able to ride a bike, but is still struggling with dyslexia for reasons related to their motor skills, and a parent might want to do a different set of interventions to help with that.

So knowledge is a big part of it, and parents need resources for knowledge. Our Website can help them to discover some of that, or maybe they could go to their school and ask for resources and help from there. Or they could request BrainyAct come to their school

IDVW

Wow this has been an eye-opening conversation, thank you! We’d love to have you back another time to talk about executive function since that’s something we care a lot about here at Reflection Sciences! But we care about child cognitive development and kids reaching their full potential, whether it’s about executive function specifically or not. So I really appreciate the insights that you’ve provided for us here today. You know I’m a huge fan of BrainyAct. I definitely believe in everything that you’re doing and I’ve seen for myself how effective it can be. And so I really appreciate you sharing that with us today.

DL

Thank you for having me.