The Developing Child: Lecture One by Johanna Steegmans, M

The child’s development in the first seven years is an immense undertaking, his journeying into life a most courageous deed. The child completely surrenders himself to this planet to fashion a new body in its new incarnation. In today’s talk we will look at the very beginning of life when the human soul-spirit has entered a living body and opens all the windows and doors to the new world, in order to fashion the second body.1 This second body is fashioned out of interchange with the people and experiences that surround the child during this time. The child needs other human beings to help him fashion the body. In order to become human, the child needs upright humans as imitative models around him. The doors and windows to the world—the senses—are openings to fields of experience; and only as much as these fields of experience are matured and opened will the world open up to the child. If the senses are allowed to mature, are nurtured and nourished, the child’s world will be large. If they are not cared for in the right ways, the child will be thwarted. We now have a wave of children who are under the umbrella of autistic spectrum disorder. As we understand how the child takes hold of the body through the senses, we can better understand this autistic phenomenon.
Even adults can be tortured by being overwhelmed in our sensory life. Too much white noise, light, and unexpected sound, for instance, can tax us, especially when we are tired. This can serve as an exercise in understanding what it is like for the child to be completely exposed to noise and not be able to move away from it. The little child receives what is given through the senses without any filtering. The child selflessly receives the information of the world around her. In the Curative Education course (published as Education for Special Needs), Rudolf Steiner speaks of how the ego of the incarnating being, the feeling body, dives into the world and meets it immediately and directly. He calls this meeting of spirit and soul, of the I and astral body respectively, a magical occurrence. When we move into the world via the senses, it is this type of magical experience of the world.
Much has been said about the lower2 senses—touch, vital/life sense, self-movement, and balance— and how these so-called lower senses are foundations for development of higher senses. Touch has to do with whole surface of the human being. While the sensors of touch lie on the surface of the body in the skin, the sensation becomes internalized and becomes a deep feeling of trust, confirming that the person exists. If the sense of touch is not internalized, nourished rightly, or enabled to mature properly, the child will not have a feeling that the body is his house in which he can joyfully live because he trusts that the body will carry him. Of this and the other lower senses we should remain unconscious. If awareness rises to consciousness, we show disordered behavior. Children who do not like socks or fuss about seams in clothes are too aware of touch.

When we empathetically feel into the child’s sensory experience, we realize how open and vulnerable she is when she is born into the world. Of this vulnerability we are unconscious when we lie in the protective, embracing arms of our parents. Being conscious of this vulnerability and sensitivity is very painful. Think of the child who, when born, screams for hours. When we empathically listen to the child’s screaming, we get an inkling that there is something conscious that should be unconscious.

Dr. Judith Bluestone3 works with children in the autistic spectrum. She suffers from autism herself. She is able to tell from the inside out how this feels. She describes that this vulnerability, this soul soreness, meets the world unprotected. If the vulnerable child meets the world unprotected in the first years of life, we can imagine what we will see in the children in our kindergartens. This vulnerability is not only to clothes and other physical touch sensations but also to encounters with another human being, a more subtle form of touch. The child lashes out when he feels too vulnerable. A child suddenly lashing out at another is now called impulse control disorder. We only feel safe when deep down we know where we come from and feel in connection to our source.Touch is the vital sense that allows us to be in the world and feel this safety.

The vital or life sense gives a different experience. This has to do with all the surfaces of our inner organs. It is a sense that is active all the time but only becomes conscious when one or another vital organ is giving a signal—such as feeling hungry, wet, tired, or when experiencing some kind of discomfort. Then the vital sense says, “Do something.” This sense has to do with the fluid life of our organs and rays a sense of comfort to the soul. One not only feels safe, but likes to be in the body because it feels good.
In these two senses, those of touch and of life, are little buds, like germinal points of the future senses of Ego and Thought. If the child feels safe in the body, feels her “I am,” then she is open to meet the other human being. In touch lies the possibility of recognizing another person as a distinct individuality. If we feel comfortable in our body through the life sense, we can meet another person in thought and understand even if there are language difficulties. Imagine that your life sense is acting up. You will not find the inner space of calm to meet the other in the space of her thought. So with children whose life sense has not been nourished, has not matured properly, we find often that they don’t seem to hear. The sense organ of hearing is healthy and functioning as it should, but these children cannot meet us in the realm of thought.

The next of these lower senses which help us take hold of our body is the sense of our own movement. Movement is a miracle. We do not just flex one muscle and extend another and then move. Movement involves the whole body as a cooperative unity. When I move my toes, the rest of the body cooperates so that the toe can move. All muscles are active in any movement. The resting muscle has to be active in holding still to allow the other to move. This movement body has to do with the sense of muscle tone. I get information on where the body is in space all the time. This is different from touch, which tells me that I exist. The sense of self-movement, which comes through the joints and muscles, gives information about how the body is arranged in space.
The senses of balance and self-movement have to work closely together. Muscle tone, which my I perceives from inside, involves the sense of self-movement. Posture in space is perceived by the sense of balance. The sensory organ for balance is the three semi-circular canals in the inner ear. These senses are miracles, tools for the child coming out of the “great space, the great time” into a small space and measured time. These are tools to connect us to this world where we can experience our incarnating goal of this epoch, which is to individualize.

When we look at the world of individualization and autism, we see that autism is an individualization process gone wrong. “Autism” means to be thrown back on oneself. “Individual” means that I become myself. The physician who named autism was actually quite inspired in seeing that the au- tistic person is thrown back on himself. Judith Bluestone describes the intense loneliness in being cut off from the world by autism. Only humans can experience loneliness and then meet the other again and form the figure of love in freedom, as pictured by the symbol of love mentioned at the opening of this talk. The autistic person is helplessly thrown into meeting the other through vulnerable senses. He or she does not experience the social healing and comfort that comes from meeting the other under the sign of love.

One aspect of the autistic spectrum is that social weaving between the autistic person and the other cannot happen properly. The four deeply body-related senses that we have been considering are the foundation for a free interchange with others in the soul realm. If these basic senses are not healthy, if we are not comfortable in this body, are not free human beings in movement, cannot feel our position in space, then it is very difficult to establish a human relationship that is trusting. The child is one big body of complete trust, one open being of surrender. Without complete trust, the child cannot imitate us, meet us through imitation. According to a definition suggested by Margret Meyercort, empathy is a flowing out of oneself and meeting the other.

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