Amid the national and global focus on the coronavirus pandemic, is World Autism Day, observed today, and in this context Business Day highlights neuroscientist Kheston Walkins and the work his company, Allegori, does with people who are autistic.
Mind over matter is no easy feat for anyone regardless of if they are on the autistic spectrum or not.
Students of varying capabilities may have been taught reading, writing and arithmetic, but few are taught self-regulation – the ability to control body functions such as heart rate and mood.
Kheston Walkins believes in empowering people to take control of their bodies and through his company, Allegori, he helps people change their behaviour and self-regulate.
Walkins, 32, has a BSc in medical neuroscience from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. When he returned to TT he worked at the University of the West Indies doing research on anxiety and epilepsy.
Two years ago, he founded Allegori, a neuro-training company that utilises neuroscience and psychology. Among the services offered is the Focus Clinic to help people learn mood regulation.
“Your mind and your body talk to each other. Self-regulation is extremely important. Being able to regulate yourself is being able to control yourself. Tracking yourself in response to what’s happening around you.”
He teaches students techniques for body and mind regulation, which improves mood regulation. He teaches them how to recognise when they are stressed, anxious or angry and how to calm the body.
His first clients were people who had severe anxiety, experiencing symptoms such as panic attacks and phobias.
“We saw the massive improvements they got in just two or three sessions of engagement with us and we thought, surely there must be some way to apply this in education.”
The awakening of a 14-year-old boy
He went to his alma mater, Queen’s Royal College, and got two students – one with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the other, a high-functioning autistic 14-year-old boy.
He was initially hesitant about working with the autistic boy because autism is on a spectrum and the varying degrees makes it difficult to train.
“One person’s autism is going to be different from the others. You still have an identity as an autistic, and that was the part that was worrying for me.”
Walkins and his team worked with the autistic boy for 11 weeks on working memory, sequencing and breathing exercises.
Working memory is extremely important for executive functions, such as decision-making.
Breathing exercises are important to manage the heart rate. Adjusting the heart rate down makes people perceive the world as being less stressful.
“Even if the world has not changed, we have. I tell my students when they are stressed in the exam, have the papers changed? No, the paper does not change. All we could do is give you the power to control yourself. That’s all we can do because we can’t change the world outside.”
At the end of the 11 weeks, the autistic student went from being in the lower percentile of the class to being in the top ten.
Walkins insists his programme is not academic. The students may do maths, but it is not a part of the school curriculum.
“You’re not coming here to learn maths. We’re looking at training your ability to regulate yourself and to use your working memory.”
His autistic student had challenges with sequencing, which Walkins said is common among people with autism and neurotypicals.
“His challenges of sequencing actually have an impact on his life in general so his mum would have to put charts to follow for him to get ready for school. (He was told) this is what you must do, in this order.”
The ability to speak on a topic fluently was another challenge Walkins noticed in his autistic student. He had the boy talk on a topic for ten seconds. At first, he was not able to make it to seven seconds of speaking.
“Fluency is the ability to communicate what’s inside your head into the world. We usually see images in our heads and then we describe the images. That’s what’s going on.”
Through repetitive practice, they were able to get him to fluently speak on a topic for 30 seconds.
“The wonky thing about humans is we have the ability to learn and as our brain develops, we get new information and new skills.
“Over the course of two weeks, there were massive differences in how he expressed himself, in how he communicated with others and less frustration.”
Initially, Walkins thought there wasn’t any improvement in the student, but soon realised the student would hit a hurdle, get frustrated and have difficulty getting past the obstacle.
“Some things you can’t get past without just working at it and working at it and working at it. You just have to put the time in. That was something we noticed that was really important.”
The ones with challenges such as ADHD or autism, he said, tend to have big jumps with improvements by 40 per cent.
“The jump he had in class was really important for us. I don’t know his scores, I don’t know his exact grades, but the students we’ve had in the programme have a jump of 20 per cent. The most I’ve seen is 40 per cent. They come in with 40s and 50s and finish with 90 and 95 per cent.
“We realised improving the clients’ focus and resisting the distractions almost invariably resulted in improved performance.”
When the student put in the work, Walkins noticed behavioural and academic change.
“His mother called me one day and said: ‘Kheston, something his happening with my son…Today, and it happened for a couple of days, he would get up and iron his clothes, and he would prepare for school without having to be prompted.’
“She didn’t have to tell him. He got it done and he would come home in the evening and his homework was completed. That was very powerful for me. What it told me was there was a lot of mental fatigue and frustration.”
Helping students overcome mental fatigue
Frustration and mental fatigue are big hurdles that stop students from fully functioning properly.
Frustration, he said, is not allowing something to go beyond a particular point. It’s not right or wrong, or moral or emotional intelligence keeping something from going beyond a certain point. It's fatigue.
When a person is tired, and someone asks them to complete a task, he/she would get annoyed and irritable. Walkins would usually ask parents if their child was irritable when interrupted from doing a task.
Through the focus and relaxation exercise, the students were less fatigued, less grumpy and were able to comply to their parents’ request.
“The parents would see it as their child being more obedient, but the child was not more or less obedient, the child was just tired, mentally and emotionally tired and they could not deliver on the mental and emotional requirements at home.”
Neurotypical people experience mental exhaustion from thinking and working, but everyday tasks would be more exhausting for an autistic person.
“They are playing the game with different cards. This is a student in a school with supposedly most of the population being neurotypical, so the odds are kind of stacked against them. Plus, some of them have issues with interacting with people and social engagements and being touched physically.
“It’s boys, they are physical, they play, they are loud. They are in a situation where it is not ideal, but I tell my students it doesn’t matter, the only thing you have control over is yourself.”
People with autism typically struggle in social situations. Parties are difficult for a range of reasons, which include loud music, non-verbal communication and large crowds. However, after his focus training, Walkins’ student elected to go to QRC’s school dance.
“That’s a huge thing…for an autistic child, in some cases, not all, they have difficulty engaging in a social setting and connecting with people. He was asked if he was going to dance with girls and he said, ‘Well the girls are not going to dance by themselves.’”
The autistic boy’s mother began to see her child as more competent. Competency and faith in oneself, Walkins said helped improve his student’s mood.
“There is something about being competent that regulates a person’s mood. People who think they are not competent tend to be a little more drained by stress. The ones who think they can handle it run in guns a blazing, they get tired like everyone else, but they are more resistant to stress.”
Walkins said parents should support their children, but they should not try to take away difficulty from them, because when they are gone, the child would not be able to survive in the world.
“There are lots of stories of people who use the quirks of their disability to their advantage. I know someone who is dyslexic, and he outperformed everybody in memory tests. This is an adult, and his big issue was with numbers.
“He started to use his memory to deal with the issues he had with numbers and writing. People evolved their ways of coping and that’s what we want them to do.”
In the past year, Walkins has had 400 students mostly who are neurotypical but seven students with autism. The focus clinic programme for neurotypical students was developed first for autistic and ADHD students.
Walkins made the decision to close Allegori physically when coronavirus entered the country and created courses for people to practice online. As a thank you to frontline medical workers, he’s offering the programme free with the referral code FRONTLINE2020.