Could retained reflexes be at the root of your child’s dyslexia? Psychologist Sarah Warley says that simple blockages can manifest as learning difficulties

We’re in a stylishly converted barn in Berkshire and my 10-year-old daughter is being instructed to stand on one leg. And to close her eyes. Next she’s asked to crawl across the floor on her stomach; then to walk backwards in a straight line. All of this is part of a neurodevelopmental assessment, but we’re not here with any physical concerns – we’re concerned with her poor spelling, reading and handwriting. The connection between standing on one leg and literacy isn’t immediately apparent, but we’re here because nothing so far has explained her inability to learn in the same way as her peers.

My daughter has always been spirited. That’s a euphemism for difficult. I was used to her not wanting to wear certain socks, not liking any change of plan however minor, and permanently feeling hard done by, thanks to an overdeveloped – even forensic – sense of justice. She’s vocal, outspoken, angry. She’s also funny, warm and insightful, but the council’s educational psychologist didn’t say anything about that. When she entered Year 5 with a reading age well behind her peers, no pen licence and an absolute inability to spell any of the High Frequency words, her confidence was at an all time low. “I’m a rubbish girl. There’s no use to me,” she told me one night, heartbreakingly.

It was in Year 2 that we had been told about her Specific Learning Difficulties. Probably dyslexia, but they weren’t keen on labels. We’d known, of course. She’d always been different from her elder sister and there were lots of dyslexics in our families: my partner, my brother, my cousins and likely previous generations of undiagnosed people. Now they’re just adults with illegible handwriting and erratic spelling, but the main force of dyslexia is that it makes the process of learning things difficult. Adults have learnt to make do, but it’s at school that the struggle happens.

I had resisted tutoring for the reasons expressed by famous dyslexic AA Gill in his memoir Pour Me. He complains: “The medicine given to dyslexic children is more work, extra writing, remedial reading, more numbers… the answer to all learning difficulties is more teaching. It always comes down to the nice plump woman who sits with you and in a kindly, prodding voice, suggests you try again… the utter abysmal useless cruelty of this has never occurred to a teacher.” Why force a child into more spelling when spelling just doesn’t work for her? Our attempts at home to revise for spelling tests always ended in tears, even when her set words got progressively easier – Year 2s routinely come home with lists of ambitious spellings (champagne, indecent, occasionally) which are intended to build on core words already learnt (house, where, song etc), but none of this works for someone who simply fails to see how combinations of letters make words.

Child psychologist Sarah Warley agrees. She’s interested in helping children with learning issues by getting to the root of the issues, rather than focusing on the symptoms. With a background in experimental psychology, her work in neuroplasticity focuses on the brain’s ability to heal itself, defying commonly held theories that learning becomes impossible as you age. Not true, she says – “the brain is plastic from cradle to grave.” Her research shows that certain reversible neurological blockages can lead to learning difficulties, and clearing these blockages will remove the difficulties. According to her, it’s extremely simple. Warley launched the Key Clinic in Berkshire, which is rapidly gaining popularity locally and she is opening a London base in September. But ideally, she’d like to see children routinely treated in schools using her methods, which she believes SEN departments could implement quickly and easily.

And this is why my daughter is standing on one leg. A variety of observations reveal her static balance to be poor, and overall the assessment reveals neurodevelopmental delays, with the persistence of many primitive reflexes which should have integrated by six months of age. These are what are ‘blocking’ the regular functioning of many of her systems. It could have been her speedy birth that caused the retention – we’ll never know for sure, though the fact that she never crawled suggests that there was a missed developmental stage early on.

In particular,  the retained ​Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)  is shown to be interfering with her horizontal eye tracking and her hand/eye coordination. These are needed for reading and writing – interestingly, 95% of those diagnosed with dyslexia have a retained ATNR. This means that much additional cognitive effort is required to read and write, which makes a lot of sense in the context of my daughter.

Over the following few months, each retained primitive reflex is addressed individually with a series of simple, targeted exercises which take about 10 minutes at home each evening. Return visits to the clinic reveal distinct improvements in her hand/eye coordination, her static balance and her spatial awareness.

Once our daughter stops having to work so hard simply to keep her balance, her cognitive faculties will be free to focus on things like spelling. The Key Clinic has an impressive book of effusive testimonials from overjoyed families of children with a huge variety of diagnosed conditions spanning Asperger’s, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and others, while Sarah Warley continues her research into making these methods more widely available and understood.

The Key Clinic will open its new London clinic on 2nd September 2019 at 36 Devonshire Place, London W1.

The clinic will provide neuroplastic, auditory and nutritional treatment and cranial osteopathy in a central location that will satisfy the demand from London-based families.

The Berkshire clinic will continue to treat children who live in the Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire areas.

Visit the Key Clinic’s website here