I’ve been digging into the origins of the therapy that we have been giving Sacha for several hours a day at home for the last few months, in the attempt to understand better our own practice. Our introduction to this approach came via the Parent Infant Clinic in London, who advocate “scaffolding” for the developmentally-delayed child.
Scaffolding—the general idea that a teacher can intervene to support a learner in achieving things that are beyond their immediate capacities—seems to be widely used in literature on pedagogy and child development, often associated with Lev Vygotsky’s notion of a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, though the term was apparently coined in David Wood, Jerome Bruner and Gail Ross “The Role Of Tutoring In Problem Solving”.
But the particular approach to scaffolding, which we gleaned from the book Every Child Can Learn, originated with the little-known neurologist, Geoffrey Waldon, who had a rather striking developmental theory:
Under unfavourable circumstances, learning for General Understanding slows excessively, distorts pathologically and finally ceases prematurely. Such a sequence of processes constitutes ‘mental retardation’; however, it is only a speeding up of the processes commonly accepted as ‘growing-up’. Looked at from this point of view adulthood may be interpreted as a retarded stage of childhood!
—Geoffrey Waldon, “Understanding Understanding“.
Waldon seems to have been a Luddite of sorts (which I do not mean in any sense as a slight): pro-science, anti-tech; grounding the scientific mentality in the free play of the typically-developing infant, which involves an organic unfolding of universal truths in a process that is entirely an end in itself, open to contingency and thus discovery.
Developmental pathologies for Waldon are produced not just by the condition of the infant themselves—their physiological and neurological conditions etc—but by the interaction of these with socially-mediated pressures, including technology. It is because we uncomprehendingly demand of the developmentally-delayed child that they develop now and according to socially predefined terms, that they are driven into negative, compensatory behaviours—the stereotypes associated with ASD etc—which become fixed patterns that it is hard to break out of. And it is thus the role of the therapist to hold off social pressures, become thing-like to the child, and immerse themselves in facilitating the play of elementary movements on which general understanding is based.
One can see in this remarkable video the sort of therapeutic practice that Waldon thought followed from this theory: