Reflexes and Reading Difficulties

Excerpt from M. McPhillips, P.G. Hepper and G. Mulhern’s “Effects of replicating primary-
reflex movements on specific reading difficulties in children.” (Lancet, 355: 537–41, 2000)

Background: Children with specific reading
difficulties have problems that extend
beyond the range of underlying language
related deficits (eg, they have difficulties with
balance and motor control). We investigated
the role of persistent primary reflexes
(which are closely linked in the earliest
months of life to the balance system) in
disrupting the development of reading
skills.
Methods: We assessed the efficacy of an
intervention programme based on
replicating the movements generated by
the primary-reflex system during fetal and
neonatal life. A randomised, individually
matched, double-blind, placebo controlled
design was used and children (aged 8–11
years) with persistent primary reflexes and a
poor standard of reading were enrolled into
one of three treatment groups: experimental
(children were given a specific movement
sequence); placebo control (children were
given non-specific movements); and control
(no movements).
Findings: From an initial sample of 98
children, 60 children, 20 in each group

were matched on age, sex, verbal
intelligence quotient (IQ), reading ability, and
persistent asymmetrical tonic neck reflex.
For asymmetrical tonic neck-reflex levels
there was a significant (group by time)
interaction (p<0•001). The experimental
group showed a significant decrease in
the level of persistent reflex over the
course of the study (mean change -1•8
[95% CI -2•4 to -1•2], p<0•001), whereas the
changes in the placebo-control and control
groups were not significant (-0•2 [-0•9 to 0•6]
and -0•4 [-0•9 to 0•2]).
Interpretation: This study provides further
evidence of a link between reading
difficulties and control of movement in
children. In particular, our study highlights
how the educational functioning of
children may be linked to interference
from an early neurodevelopmental system
(the primary-reflex system). A new
approach to the treatment of children with
reading difficulties is proposed involving
assessment of underlying neurological
functioning, and appropriate remediation.

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