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Love is a Neural Highway

A conversation with Amy O'Dell.

Amy O'Dell
Amy O’Dell is the founder of Jacob's Ladder, a private school established to meet the specific needs of children with neurological disorders.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.

When is the last time you were pushed by the hard knocks of reality to test your deepest convictions? When have you felt control wrested away from you, and how did you respond?

Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, where today we’re going to soak in the story of one woman whose answers to these questions are born out of one of the most tender experiences in human life: bearing a child, and responding as a mother to that child.

In Amy O’Dell’s case, her son, Jacob, was born with some severe complications, which led her on a journey whose discoveries are now transforming the lives of thousands of children. The question is, Will her road, a road marked by rigor, humility, and love’s deepest lessons, stretch the neuroscientific field’s understanding of the brain’s capacity to change?

My hope is yes, but first let’s just get acquainted with Amy herself, her heart, and the home for all the hurting and nearly hopeless that she has built and continues to nurture. A home—a school, really—known as Jacob’s Ladder.

Amy, it is a true joy to welcome you to this podcast today.

Amy O’Dell: And it’s a true honor to be here. Thank you, Anne, and thank you for those beautiful words.

Anne Snyder: So, you have faithfully gardened this amazing oasis of transformation known as Jacob’s Ladder. And of course we could spend no less than twenty years describing all the intricacies in the journey to now. But at the most personal level, I tend to find that this scope of beauty and growth that occurs in the lives of children and families almost always begins with a very personal origin story. Do you mind sharing it?

Amy O’Dell: Sure. I have a son named Jacob who will be twenty-eight years old this year. I also have a daughter who’s thirty-three years old. My daughter was born really gifted, and Jacob was born with these profound challenges.

At the time, I was working in a hospital for children, a child and adolescent psychiatric facility. My daughter was four when Jacob was born with various complications after a high-risk pregnancy.

Our society has a tendency to separate and isolate all the different facets of a human being, and then to try to treat each facet as an isolated portion. But for Jacob, I’m looking at this little kid, this infant who then grows into an eighteen-month old and a two-year old. And it was really sometime around that time span between eighteen months and two years where I was watching physical delays, cognitive delays, a lack of speech, and some visual issues. He also had some very difficult heart issues that required open-heart surgery.

We were going through one thing after another. Each thing no small thing, but a significant thing. And when I was in those moments, as any parent knows, my heart was just getting wrapped around the axle of a car. It was all-consuming. Now I can look back and see how divinely orchestrated each hard thing was, but at the time it just felt like a lot of pain and a lot of struggle.

One day I dropped Jacob off at a little church preschool, and headed to work to my job at the hospital. As I looked through the window as I passed by after dropping him off (he was about twenty months old at the time), he couldn’t sit up unassisted. I had practiced sitting him up and letting him balance himself. And that was before I knew what I know now. I tried to teach him how to sit up, but there’s a lot that has to happen neurologically for a child to sit up independently.

There’s a lot that has to happen neurologically for a child to sit up independently.

Most children don’t have to be taught how to sit up; their brain becomes wired to allow them to explore their body and their motion and their physical ability, and then learn to sit up. But they don’t really have to be taught and shown and put in position and hope and pray you don’t fall over them—that’s just not how it happens in typical development. But that’s what I did with Jacob because I was desperate for him to make progress.

So I looked through the window at the little preschool, and honestly, I knew in my heart that if the wind blew or a child ran past him and he happened to turn his head, he was going to topple over because he didn’t have all of those connections made—his balance and his vision and his proprioceptive awareness, all those pieces weren’t there, and he did fall over, and then he started to cry.

So I waited to see how long it was going to be before someone would come and sit him back up. And my heart just couldn’t take it. I don’t think my heart was supposed to take it. I walked inside and I thanked the wonderful people who were trying to care for him, and I put him on my hip, and we walked out. I then drove over to the hospital, and I left my job, not really knowing what I was doing (because my job at the time was supporting my family).

Looking back, it’s like, “Wow, what made you even think that that was an okay thing to do?” But at the time it was all I could do. It was all I could do. And it was from that moment on that it was really about understanding neurodevelopment, understanding what needs to happen in a brain for a child to develop appropriately. And then delving into what’s really required to give them that opportunity.

So in the next few years, when Jacob was between two and five, I studied a lot and I read a lot of research and I visited some places that I thought were doing great work. I had a couple of mentors come alongside me. But all of that time, I was working with Jacob eight hours a day, every single day. And what I saw in him was miraculous. It was getting insight into him as my son in his fullness. I was gaining experience with a child who had such various and vast needs that it was almost impossible to follow a piecemeal approach. And all this sparked a passion in me to carry out this transformation for him to the nth degree, and to do so, then, for others. The seed was planted for Jacob’s Ladder.

Anne Snyder: Thank you very much for sharing all that.

Around that time, when you talk about the seed being planted in you for what would become Jacob’s Ladder, were you meeting other parents who may not have traveled the identical circumstances that you had, but who expressed a similar ache for what did not exist?

Amy O’Dell: That’s a great question. The honest answer is that until Jacob was about five or six years old, he and I were working together eight hours a day. At the time I was doing contract work in the evenings into the middle of the night, answering emergency calls from ERs about assessing clients who are in need of mental health services.

So there wasn’t really a lot of time for socializing and meeting other people; we were really just so focused on getting the work done. But that shifted when we moved from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, and I started doing the seminars for families to just talk about the work, and people started coming to those talks.

At that point, it was very clear that there were so many people in the same position, in that there were great services, there were great hospitals, there were great therapists, and so forth, but at the end of the day, if you’re really going to change a brain, if you’re really going to change the neurological system, there has to be intensive and frequent intervention done to a degree that it actually gives the neuroplastic brain an opportunity to shift and change.

If you’re really going to change a brain, if you’re really going to change the neurological system, there has to be intensive and frequent intervention done to a degree that it actually gives the neuroplastic brain an opportunity to shift and change.

So Jacob’s Ladder methodology is really not meant to replace wonderful therapies; it’s meant to give a foundation of work and incorporate all of those other therapeutic interventions into the day of the child, knowing that it’s going to be the frequency and intensity of the work and how it’s delivered (and, crucially, within the relationship with the person delivering it), that the child actually begins to grow and to thrive.

Anne Snyder: One thing that you have taught me, and I think you’re in many ways pioneering more broadly in neuroscience, is this notion of the whole brain. And you say very rightly that we’re in a society and historical era that thinks that you solve problems by reducing them to their simplest, atomistic part. It’s a reductive approach, and it’s not all bad—the scientific method has some very healthy disciplines and some very useful outcomes—but I do think this method has infiltrated the ways in which we approach almost everything.

The encouraging thing is, there does seem to be a reaction against such reductive problem-isolating these days—not just in neuroscience, but in a lot of fields. Many are experimenting with ways to approach questions more holistically, with a respect for integration.

But what’s really fascinating about your work is that you had this insight really early on—you built a whole school model on the premise that the brain itself is very interconnected. So could you explain as for me, the nonscientist, what exactly is the whole-brain approach?

Amy O’Dell: One of my favorite authors and someone in this field is named Dr. Carla Hannaford. And I did a little training under her, read all of her books. One of them, Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, was published in 1995. Jacob was born in 1993. So I discovered fairly early on in Jacob’s life this beautiful way of talking about the brain, about neurodevelopment, and the need for a whole-brain, whole-body approach.

Dr. Hannaford talked a lot about getting kids out in the sunlight, about movement and how important that is for kids. And that was back in the 90s. We’ve lost even more of those habits now because all the kids are on devices and no one’s outside and no one’s moving. So, even back then someone knew how we’re actually wired, what’s needed to create health and balance in the way the system is inherently built.

I took so much from her work. And then more recently, in the last ten years, I’ve read a good bit by Dr. Bruce Perry, who focuses on the emotional well-being of children and attachment, the importance of relationship for kids who haven’t had the experience of safety and nurturing and having their basic needs met. All of which affects the ways in which the brain builds itself upon experience.

The outward manifestation of this kind of lack is the inability to attach, to form truly meaningful relationship. It’s the way that they process information. What behaviors they manifest come from that part that’s rooted in the brain and that midbrain, which is really that center of fight or flight. For instance, Am I safe? Can I be here? Can I learn? Can I open up? Can I let down my walls? Can I learn what it means to be in relationship? Or can I not?

And I got really interested in his work when we really focused on a part of Jacob’s Ladder called The Hope School. Historically, Jacob’s Ladder had served kids who had many, many clear physical challenges. Sixty percent of our kids had an autism-spectrum diagnosis and were lacking both language capability and social-interaction capability. This yields many hypersensitivities to the world.

So we were very accustomed to being in that space. And then I started to evaluate and see more and more children who, cognitively, were where they needed to be: they had the ability to test and be within a fairly average IQ range, they were capable of doing and learning academically (even if they were failing and not learning), they had the raw material to do so, but their barriers were emotional and behavioral. They were unable to regulate emotionally.

It became clear that we needed something different; we needed to add something. Over the last eight years I’ve done a lot of reading, research, building, trialing to see what works, and think now we’re at a very good place of understanding what is actually the brain structure of these kids whose diagnosis might be communicating something else.

For instance, there may be an ADHD diagnosis and oppositional defiant diagnosis, a conduct disorder, a high-functioning autism diagnosis, but with a lot of emotional and behavioral dysregulation. For those kids to become successful, I cannot overstate what’s actually needed on a day-by-day basis. For many, many of those kids, if they don’t get that need met, if they don’t actually receive the intervention that they need as children and as young teens, then as young adults they typically end up in some trouble, socially speaking.

If they don’t learn the ability to self-regulate, and from a brain-based perspective, utilize the frontal lobes and build connections between the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, and the frontal lobes, then I see them as not having a choice much of the time. So again, it doesn’t matter if I’m trying to teach Jacob to sit up or I’m trying to teach a fifteen-year-old boy not to steal or be aggressive to other people. I can’t teach him any of that in a book sense; I have to dig deep and ask, What are his true barriers? What are his strengths? Neurodevelopmentally, neurologically, socially, emotionally, interpersonally physiologically? And then program for that based on those truths for that individual child.

Anne Snyder: Let’s talk about this relationship between the external environment and what’s happening internally. I think often about the nature of those whole communities, whole environments, that helps shape and nurture the whole person. And in the context of this whole brain that you’re so attentive to, I would love to hear you describe the norms that are in place at Jacob’s Ladder, and then the particular things you do to weave a tailored web of care around each child. How does all that work together to start to heal wounded attachments—or weak connections—inside the brain?

Amy O’Dell: That’s a beautiful question. I think of it as a multicolored tapestry, with every single child’s tapestry looking a little bit different. So at Jacob’s Ladder, we assess a child by looking at 320 neurodevelopmental metrics that we’ve developed over the years and that are unique to us. They’ve accumulated over the last twenty-six years of us asking ourselves, What have we really seen and learned?

We pair our deep study of neuroscience with our deep presence with over four thousand children, and, well, you start to piece together this tapestry. So once we evaluate a child on those 320 metrics, then we have a base of over three thousand interventions to choose from and weave together. No child that we see is going to need or have the same exact threads woven into his or her tapestry as the next child.

We have to discern the truths of what we’ve seen, in terms of the whole-brain model of care. And again, that’s, Physiologically where are they? That’s a huge piece of the pie. Then there’s, What is their immune system? What are the neurotransmitters? What’s the balance? What’s the imbalance? What are their allergies? What are they eating every day? How much time do they get outside and move? So all of those things are critical, and then we go back to my story of Jacob struggling to sit up—Well, what were the barriers to him sitting up? They were very specific.

When I stopped trying to teach him how to sit up, and instead went to the root of the issue that would not allow him to sit up and balance, then, of course, he sat up just perfectly. To this day, I carry that in my heart because every child that I or my team sees, we reflect on what we see and say, “I’m not here to teach you and mold you into this thing, I’m here to see what your barriers are and then to very diligently take the time to put together exactly what you need.” What a beautiful thing to be able to say! How many people in this life get the opportunity to just take the time?

How many people in this life get the opportunity to just take the time?

None of this is a magic bullet, and it’s not quick. It’s, How long do we need to sit here and talk with this family to truly understand? How long do we actually need to be present with this child to truly understand? And then once we’ve understood, when we put it all together in a comprehensive overview, which we give to the family, my question when I’m in those meetings is, tell me anything that resonated with you, or tell me where we missed the mark for this child that you love so much.

What we hear pretty universally is, “I can’t believe that you know this much about my family and my child after only a couple of days together.” And we’re so proud of that, because that’s our goal: to so deeply understand. This is one of the nonnegotiables that is the foundation of our work. We are here to deeply know and understand; we’re not here to make money, we’re not here because our ego needs to prove something. We are here to meet people where they are, to deeply understand, to be diligent in formulating an intervention program that’s going to be transformative for that child. And that’s different for every single child: For one it’s, let’s learn how not to attack your family, for another it’s, let’s teach you how to sit up, or how to use your right hand because you had a stroke and now you’ve got to hold it close to your body, because you’ve got muscle rigidity.

It’s so different for every single child. But we approach it the same way, which is when you understand neurodevelopment, then you understand what leads to what, then leads to what, then leads to what, and then you program for that.

In terms of the fabric of the staff, we screen very diligently and we train very diligently. Our staff trains not only on the science of the methodology, but we have what we call a hope, truth, and love training. They spend as much time training around how to walk alongside another, the child and the family, as they do training on the scientific part of the model. I always tell the staff that if we ever walk into this equation, as we work with a family, and we only focus on the science and we lose our emphasis on what it means, we’re not doing our job. We always talk about the balance of science and love. We have to walk in with great love, because when you walk in with great love, you’re actually influencing that brain to be in a state where it’s receptive to learning and connection.

When you walk in with great love, you’re actually influencing that brain to be in a state where it’s receptive to learning and connection.

If you don’t do that, then you’ve probably got a little struggling child that’s stuck in fight or flight, who’s really not going to be able to learn or connect. So there’s even science to the love side. And here’s the thing: If a staff member doesn’t come in the door and buy in to both parts and see themselves carrying out both parts, then we’re just not the right place for them.

Anne Snyder: I’m really moved by this notion of time you raise. How does the gift of unhurried attention you’ve cultivated at Jacob’s Ladder ripple out into the rest of your life?

Amy O’Dell: One of the things Dallas Willard always said is, “Above all things, eliminate hurry from your life.” And then John Ortberg took that thought and said, “Set yourself apart, or you will come apart.” Something like that. It was just something very simple, yet profound, setting yourself apart, meaning give yourself space and time, and if you don’t, you will find that you will come apart. So I’ve imprinted those words on my heart. What does it mean for me personally, to set myself apart?

Because anytime I start to hear my inner voice saying, “I feel like I’m coming apart,” or “I feel like the pieces of my puzzle are not all together,” or “I’m feeling a little bit frazzled,” that’s when I need to pause. It’s part of the human experience to feel this fragmentation of ourselves. But our lives are too short to live this way.

I have so much regret about all the time I spent being busy, or striving, or being confident in my ability to do whatever, rather than to walk in the grace of God. You can choose to think you’ve got it all together and that you can make these things happen, and then end up exhausted and depleted and wonder why you feel you’re going to fall apart. As Dallas Willard says, “We’re all the keeper of our own soul. We are not the captain of our own soul, we are the keeper of our own soul.”

It’s up to me to know what the health of my soul is on a day-by-day basis. And here’s the other thing: If I want to have an influence or impact, whether it’s within the walls of my own home or within the walls of the school or the people I lead, the number-one thing that I can do is slow down and make sure that my soul is healthy, because I can keep running and pushing and striving and building all day long, but at the end of the day, the people that I want to have the impact for the most will probably start to look at an empty shell named Amy O’Dell, instead of an Amy O’Dell whose soul is full and overflowing with all things that are good and beautiful and renewing.

So I pray every day that I wake up and I keep the day holy. And what that means for me is, I want to walk this life out with Christ. I want to walk it out the way that Christ would have me walk it out. And I think that means taking my time and caring deeply, but also caring for my own soul, which means less busyness and hurry and more quiet time. It’s hard at first, because when you slow down and you stop filling yourself up with all the external things, you feel even more empty for a little while and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is really uncomfortable, and now here I sit with myself. So what am I going to do about that?” But that, that right there is the intersection where you have the opportunity to become integrated rather than fragmented.

I know what both feel like, I know what fragmentation feels like, and it is deeply disturbing. And I know what integration feels like, and that is heavenly, and that is what in our trainings at the school I call our point of influence. You have this point of influence, whether it’s with one other person in your life or ten thousand people in your life. And the strength of your point of influence is how integrated your body, your mind, your soul, and your will are with one another.

The strength of your point of influence is how integrated your body, your mind, your soul, and your will are with one another.

To even know that they can always become more integrated is such a beautiful thing, a beautiful reality. And I have experienced the power of the impact in that place, but I want to repeat, I have also experienced it in less than that state of integration. So I know the pain of that too. I think sometimes it’s the pain of that fragmentation that finally drives people to seek a better, different way.

Anne Snyder: That was beautifully expressed. Thank you.

Coming back to your son, Jacob, what do you feel is one of the most important things he continues to teach you?

Amy O’Dell: Jacob is a teacher at The Hope School now, and he’s just so gifted with those kids. I’m going to give you two examples. One, we had a student come in, had not been able to go to school for five years because of this paralyzing fear that he had and anxiety that would then cause him to have these behavioral outbursts.

When he entered the school, we paired him with Jacob as his main provider. And Jacob has this uncomplicated purity of heart that transforms people around him. So often we can overcomplicate our lives, almost especially in our attempts to help other people.

But what another person needs more often is a steadfast, purely intentioned heart to just sit beside them or be with them or listen to them and then give whatever words of wisdom that they have.

This quality in Jacob came up in our early infant program. We have many little babies and toddlers on campus, and for whatever reason not only is Jacob very drawn to them, but they are uniquely drawn to him.

And at the end of Jacob’s day teaching at The Hope School, he always circles down to the infant program and spends time with them. And the thing that just came to my mind and my heart is that flash of Jacob sitting at the preschool, needing someone to physically prop him up.

So he goes into the nursery every day, this infant program. And I think it’s his way of physically propping up these young ones, these little ones, and because he has a pure, attentive heart, it’s transformative. I would always tend to overcomplicate it, but not him. He just walks in steadfast, rooted in love with a pure intention to heart, and people are transformed. What bigger gift can you have than that? To be taught that by your son?

He’s always had that quality. I so admire it, I respect it. And I just feel honored to be able to watch it.

Anne Snyder: Thank you, Amy. I’m so grateful for your time with me and our listeners today.

Amy O’Dell: I’ve just loved this time with you. Thank you for the time and the conversation today.

To find out more about Jacob’s Ladder, you can check out their website, watch Amy speak from the heart at a HINRI conference, and/or read this story—How a Mother Built a School that Can Transform Hearts and Brains that Anne had the privilege of writing in advance of this podcast episode.