It was just a few weeks ago that I was standing in the waiting room of the EEG Institute when a six-year-old autistic child entered with his mother. He rushed to hug the neurofeedback practitioner.
While such a connection would be pleasant under normal circumstances, here was a child who had been incapable of eye-contact only months before. The mother and the clinician exchanged a smile, acknowledging the positive changes in the boy.
The mystery of autism is gradually being decoded. What we have learned in our clinic at the EEG Institute is that autism is primarily a problem of right-brain development, which results in the delayed communication, relational, and connection skills. Also, there is usually a very highly activated nervous system that interferes with the child’s ability to be present, to make eye contact, where even the smallest amount of sensory input feels overwhelming.
Autism is not like other diseases. There is not a single cause, so there is not a single remedy. But a variety of remedies are emerging, each contributing a part to the improved functionality of the child.
Recent clinical research has just come to light suggesting that direct brain training may be of greater benefit to autistic children than any other single remedy currently available. The technique is called neurofeedback. It involves measuring the EEG, or brainwaves, and rewarding the child for better “brain behavior.” This is a straightforward conditioning technique, a kind of exercise for the brain. The brain is challenged from moment to moment to move toward more functional states, and gradually the brain learns to live there. By means of brain training, the highly activated (over-aroused) nervous system is calmed down. The training can also be targeted to promote emotional regulation, so that children are helped in their relationships with parents, siblings, and classmates. Further, the training can be targeted to help with language function. Motor control is usually improved as well.
The training can also improve physical functioning. Many autistic children suffer from constipation, for example, and with neurofeedback that issue can be largely resolved. Others may have auditory and visual or touch sensitivities, and these can be calmed down as well.
The training requires professional visits for a time, but if longer-term training is indicated, children are typically transitioned to a home-training regimen under the supervision of the clinician. Progress from session to session is tracked via the Internet. Neurofeedback should not be done in place of medical remedies, but rather as a complement. Clearly we have our strongest chance for improvement when the best of biochemical, nutritional, pharmacological and toxicological approaches are combined with the neurofeedback. All therapies go better if the child’s brain is functioning optimally.
The recent research mentioned above found an average symptomatic improvement of 42% in some twenty autistic children over their first twenty training sessions. A 40% change is highly worthwhile already, but twenty sessions of training typically does not exhaust the possibilities of neurofeedback. Most autistic children continue to benefit from many more sessions. A good many autistic children become entirely medication-free in this process. Over time, there is a significant chance that the child may eventually even “lose” the autism diagnosis.