"Brain balance" therapy is one of the latest treatments for autistic children
GOLDEN, Colo. — Ricky Heilbron is racing a timer as he shoves metal pegs into a wooden board. The 9-year-old wears blue-tinted glasses and a buzzer on his left ear — visual and audio stimulation for the right side of his brain.
Ricky, a third-grader with attention-deficit disorder and Asperger’s syndrome, is among those undergoing a new “brain balance” therapy for kids diagnosed with disorders in the autism spectrum.
At a clinic in Golden, kids propel their bodies across monkey bars, clap their hands to keep up with a metronome that changes tempo, and study reading comprehension and math reasoning.
The Brain Balance Center is one of the latest franchises in a growing number of alternative therapies for autism and related neurological disorders.
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No surprise the industry is booming: The chances this year of a child in the United States being diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder are one in 110, up from last year’s rate of one in 150, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares with just one in about 10,000 a decade ago.
Researchers debate just how much of that increase is due to better diagnosis and how much is an alarming jump in brain disorders. Some doctors blame more stress and environmental toxins for pregnant women and children, as well as technology — TV, video games and iPods — that keep kids sedentary and focused on fine-motor skills, functions controlled by the left side of the brain.
In Ricky’s case, the right side of his brain is delayed, say his Brain Balance coaches — he misses the big picture and is obsessed with details, he tends to freak out when his routine is interrupted and he doesn’t get the concept of personal space, affecting his ability to make friends.
Ricky’s parents recently signed him up for a second three-month session at Brain Balance, therapy that includes three hours of right-brain stimulation each week. The program, which costs more than $5,000, typically isn’t covered by insurance.
Ricky’s dad, Mike Heilbron, said his son’s outbursts are less frequent, his reading has improved and he is less of a “space-invader” since he started the therapy.
“By bombarding his brain for an hour, three times a week … we can basically rewire the brain,” said Tamara Eslich, a former chiropractor who, along with her husband, Eric, opened Colorado’s first Brain Balance in December. “We are going to find the underlying problem.”
Brain Balance now has more than 20 sites across the country.
Another franchise for kids with autism and learning disabilities, LearningRx Brain Training Centers, has 70 sites.
Founder Ken Gibson, a former pediatric optometrist, said kids with autism-spectrum disorder often have trouble blending sounds, which makes reading difficult. His therapy focuses on lengthening attention span, short-term memory and speed.
For a maximum of about $10,000 for a seven-month program, kids at LearningRx sit through demanding sessions doing exercises such as adding numbers in their head as a tutor spouts them in rapid fire.
“It’s like a physical workout, but it’s mental,” Gibson said.
He said the methods of the competition — the right-brain-versus-left-brain therapies at Brain Balance — are based on literature.
“There’s not a whole lot of science in that area,” Gibson said. “We try to follow a method that is more science-based.”
The “brain training” that happens at LearningRx can boost kids’ IQs by 15 points and improve reading ability by four years, he said.
With the flood of expensive, alternative therapies — from horseback riding to sensory stimulation — parents of autistic children should use caution before enrolling, said Dr. Robin Gabriels, a psychologist and founder of Children’s Hospital’s Neuropsychiatric Special Care Program in Aurora.
Choosing the right therapy for an autistic child depends largely on the severity of the child’s disorder, Gabriels said.
“There is no one treatment that we can name and say that is the one you need to use,” she said.
“When parents come to me and they say, ‘Should I try this new expensive diet or this vitamin therapy?’ and they really don’t have a lot of financial resources, I say, ‘Start with what you know works,’ ” said Gabriels, who uses “social stories” accompanied by pictures that teach kids who don’t read social cues on how to behave.
Some therapies for sale aren’t necessarily based on widely accepted science, Gabriels said. For example, she said, autistic children don’t necessarily have a right-brain delay.
“We know it’s a neurological disorder, but we don’t know a specific brain site that has been identified,” she said. “That hasn’t been done yet.”