Reflexes and How They Affect Learning Disabilities? Part 1
In this first post, we will provide an understanding of a few foundational reflexes and talk about how they relate to Learning Disabilities (LD). Stay tuned for the second post in this two-part series, where we’ll look at how reflexes can become unintegrated and how to help manage them in relation to LD.
But first, what exactly is a reflex?
To be more specific, a reflex is an automatic movement controlled by the nervous system to bring about a predictable response or responses . Reflexes begin their formation in the womb and are responsible for the baby’s growth and development. But they don’t stop there. After birth, most reflexes are still active within the first few months of life and ideally become balanced within the body (or inactive) anywhere from the first 6 months to 3 years of age (depending on the reflex). If a reflex does not become integrated or balanced within the body by the appropriate age, then they are termed unintegrated, retained, or active.
While there are at least 18 different reflexes working in concert within our bodies, for the sake of time, we will only look at a few of the most foundational in this post.
Moro Reflex: This is known as the gateway reflex because it lays the foundation for later reflexes to operate successfully. Also known as the “fight or flight” reflex, the Moro is a protective reflex and causes the fetus to withdraw from sudden stimuli or possible danger. After birth, the Moro allows the baby to take its first breath, arch the back in response to danger, and curl forward to cling to the mother in case of a possible fall. 
Spinal Galant: In utero, the Spinal Galant helps the baby get into position for birth. It is responsible for the development in the fetus of the auditory system. It contributes to inner-ear development, which is closely related to the vestibular system. Through this connection, the Spinal Galant is pivotal for helping to form the ability to balance in a baby, which is foundational for crawling and walking. 
ATNR: The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex helps the baby in the womb to develop muscle tone by moving and kicking. Additionally, when it’s time to be born, the ATNR (along with the Spinal Galant) is responsible for allowing the baby to move down the birth canal. After birth, the ATNR contributes to motor development, eye-hand coordination, and visual focus. It also helps to develop the highly important corpus callosum in the brain, and the vestibular system. 
Landau: This reflex helps the infant respond rightly to gravity. It aids the development of vision (specifically the ability to see three-dimensionally), it helps with vestibular skills, and it contributes to posture and muscle tone. As a result of upper and lower body coordination, the Landau helps the infant learn to walk. 
TLR: The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex is composed of two parts: forward (“flexion”) and backward (“extension”). This duo works together to allow the head to align correctly in response to its environment, fundamentally laying groundwork for balance, visual tracking, auditory processing, muscle tone, and proprioception. [1,2]
It’s clear from a brief look at just a few of the most foundational reflexes that they work together to form our auditory and vestibular systems, visual processing, proprioception, and more.
These complexities of the human are what allow our very understanding of and reactions to the world around us. So when they’re a bit thrown off by unintegrated reflexes, we will be too. And often this “thrown off” state results in a Learning Disability.
To make the connection between LD’s and reflexes more clear, let’s look a little more closely at the Moro Reflex. This “gateway” reflex is one of the first to form in the fetus and is responsible for triggering the defense mechanisms. Dr. Harald Blomberg explains: “[When the Moro is activated] the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenals are stimulated and the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol are secreted. Epinephrine causes the senses to become oversensitive” .
If the Moro continues to remain unintegrated throughout childhood, the adrenals can become fatigued, possibly resulting in constant anxiety, mood swings, fear of social situations, and headaches.
Additionally, the child may have immature visual development and thus struggle to keep visual attention in a classroom on a board (or when reading). Furthermore, because this “fight or flight” reflex is constantly engaged, they may become startled or distracted at the slightest sound: when their classmates are whispering behind them they can’t focus, when their siblings are playing close by they can’t do homework, etc.
Bonnie Brandes explains that an unintegrated Moro can result in the following: ADHD, autism, central auditory processing disorders, cerebral palsy, dyspraxia, dyslexia, visual processing disorders, and other neurological condition and pathologies .
This is just the way that one reflex affects the ability to learn. The other 17 have their effects too, and each one elaborately feeds into many intricacies within our bodies. Stay tuned for the second post in this series to learn about how reflexes become unintegrated and how they can be helped.
- Blomberg, Harald. (2015) The Rhythmic Movement Method. San Bernardino, CA: Lulu Publishing Services.
- Brandes, Bonnie. (2015) The Symphony of Reflexes. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.