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Neurofeedback: A Promising Treatment for Autism

Recent research indicates that, on average, 1 in 68 children (specifically, 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Children with ASD have difficulty functioning in social interactions, in verbal and non-verbal communication, and behavior. They may appear to be insensitive because of their inability to feel empathy or to interpret the emotions of others, or understand another person’s intentions.

Some of these children may also have an extreme sensitivity to sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. (For example, one little boy couldn’t stand the feeling of socks on his feet.) Children with ASD may also display peculiar behaviors or obsessions.

The success of Neurofeedback with autistic children has been well researched and documented. It has been shown to improve focus and attention, sleep, social behaviors, and academic functioning; to decrease anxiety and impulsivity; and to increase appropriate eye contact.

Through a non-invasive, painless technique, neurofeedback creates a “brain map” that identifies where the brain is having trouble processing information. The subsequent treatment sessions, which are created to fit the specific needs of the individual, assist the child in making long-lasting functional change without any negative side effects.

 

What Symptoms Can Neurofeedback Treat?

A great deal of research has been done on the Neurofeedback treatment of ASD. Results show significant improvements in measures of attention; impulsivity; reading; spelling; arithmetic; and an average 9-point increase in IQ.

 

Following is a list of 10 symptoms of autism that may be alleviated by Neurofeedback. (Adapted from advancedneurotherapy.com.):

  1. Stimming. Often a person with autism finds sensory stimuli overwhelming and uncomfortable. To compensate, the person will often repeat physical movements or sounds, sometimes for hours on end. Neurofeedback works to make the brain function more calmly and efficiently, reducing the person’s perception of stimuli as being overwhelming. If the patient feels calmer overall and the stimuli around her does not seem overwhelming, the stimming can be reduced or eliminated.
  2. Emotional outbursts. Neurofeedback improves emotional control within the brain to help the brain function calmly. Emotional outbursts are often due to feeling overwhelmed, as the brain does not know how to cope with the information being provided to it. When the brain functions more calmly, the person no longer feels compelled to act out emotionally.
  3. Speech issues. Neurofeedback strengthens brain processing, including the areas in the brain that are responsible for taking in sensory information and building a response. Therefore, Neurofeedback sessions can improve a person’s ability to engage in conversation, process what is being said, and then respond appropriately.
  4. Ritualistic behavior. Ritualistic behavior is often performed to deal with anxiety or overwhelming external stimuli, giving the patient a sense of control. Neurofeedback trains the brain to cope with anxiety and external stimuli with more ease, thereby substantially reducing or eliminating ritualistic behaviors.
  5. Intolerance to change. Neurofeedback trains the brain to process information calmly and appropriately, so when new information is presented, the person is able to cope with the seemingly sudden change without feeling overwhelmed.
  6. Hyperactivity. Neurofeedback teaches the brain to function more calmly and deal with anxiety more appropriately, thereby reducing symptoms of hyperactivity.
  7. Impulsivity. Impulsivity can be significantly reduced or eliminated as the brain learns to cope with anxiety in a healthy, sustainable way through Neurofeedback.
  8. Inability to follow directions. A person with autism often has difficulty following directions. Neurofeedback sessions enable the brain to function more efficiently and calmly, allowing the patient to improve information processing, which improves the ability to follow directions.
  9. Anxiety. Many symptoms of ASD are rooted in anxiety. If the brain is flooded with anxiety, processing information can be overwhelming and cause emotional reactions. Once the brain learns to calm itself, anxiety can be reduced or eliminated.
  10. Issues with social skills. When the brain is working at its best, with far less anxiety and better processing, social interaction becomes easier. Parents of autistic children who have had Neurofeedback treatment have reported a significant improvement in social interaction.

 

How Many Sessions?

The number of Neurofeedback sessions varies widely and depends on the specific complaints of the individual. Some may show marked improvement after 15 sessions; others may require 40 or more.

 

Case Studies

The following are real-life stories of two people with autism who underwent neurofeedback therapy (stories courtesy of The Neurodevelopment Center).

 

Sally

“Sally was smart as a whip. But she struggled to understand the social world and to remain calm and in control of herself. She completely avoided playing with other children her age. She was rigid and bossy. After ten weeks and 20 sessions of neurofeedback training, Sally showed very significant improvements in her social functioning… Sally was able to enjoy herself in play with peers for the first time in her life and was much calmer, more flexible, and happier—in school and at home.”

 

Sam

“Sam’s Dad came to us looking for a new approach to treatment for autism spectrum disorder. His son Sam was a junior in college. Although Sam had coped reasonably well in high school, he just could not handle the complexities of life in college. He became totally isolated and very depressed. He had to drop out of school. “Sam responded well to Neurofeedback. In ten weeks, after 20 neurofeedback sessions, his social functioning improved dramatically…His Dad joked at the time that he was afraid his son had become a bit of a party animal. For the first time in his life, being social was as much of a priority as grades! Three years later, Sam continues to do very well socially, with several close friends and an active social life.”

 

Tried and True

Neurofeedback is not a new concept; it was developed over 50

years ago. Decades of research trials have ensued, and the results indicate that neurofeedback is a sustainable treatment with positive, beneficial results for people with autism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How To Best Serve a Child With Autism

If you are the parent, teacher, or friend of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and are wondering how best to help him or her, there are several things to keep in mind.

 

Accept Your Child

Your child is different from non-ASD children, but rather than focus on the differences, on what you think your child may be lacking, practice acceptance of their disability—and abilities! Many times, children with ASD—even those who are non-verbal—have special gifts and talents. Encourage your child to develop these characteristics. Just like anyone else, the autistic child will often respond well to positive reinforcement.

Nothing will help your child more than to feel unconditional love and acceptance. Treasure your child for who they are.

 

Learn As Much As You Can

The more you know about ASD, the better equipped you will be to relate to and help the child. Educate yourself about the disorder—and especially about your child. No two children are alike, so pay special attention to what your child’s specific challenges are. Figure out what triggers his disruptive behaviors and what prompts a positive response.

What stresses or frightens your child? What calms them? What do they find uncomfortable, or enjoyable? Once you understand what affects your child, you will be better prepared to create or modify situations that will best serve them.

Children on the spectrum all have different strengths and weaknesses. No one knows your child like you do, so it’s up to you to make sure their needs are being met.

 

Common Needs and Characteristics

Although children with ASD differ from one another, there are certain things that they have in common and can benefit from. Giving special attention to these things can help your child thrive.

Structure:

Children on the spectrum crave consistency, and they tend to do best when they have a highly structured schedule or routine. Keeping regular times for meals, therapy appointments, school, and bedtime will go a long way to soothing your child. Keep disruptions to a minimum. If you do encounter an unavoidable change, prepare your child for it in advance.

Safety:

Set up a “safe zone” in your home where your child can relax and feel secure. If your child is prone to tantrums or injurious behaviour, remove any objects that they may access to hurt themselves or others.

Consistent Consequences:

Along with needing structure, make sure that your response to your child’s positive and negative behaviors is consistent. If praise is given, be specific about which behavior you are praising. Likewise, if they have exhibited negative behaviour, be specific about which behaviour you would like them to change.

Sensory Sensitivities:

Many children with ASD are extra sensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. By the same token, some children are “under-sensitive” to sensory stimuli, and may, for example, enjoy being in crowded, noisy places, or banging doors and objects.

Some children are sensitive to textures in food or clothing. For example, they may wish to eat only “smooth” foods, such as mashed potatoes or ice cream, or they might refuse to wear socks or long sleeves. If such is the case, don’t force your child to eat food or wear clothing that they are uncomfortable with.

Communication:

Depending where they fall on the spectrum, children with ASD often find it difficult to communicate with others. They may not understand social rules or cues, or may not be able to feel empathy. Some can speak; others are non-verbal.

When communicating with a child with ASD, it may help to keep your language simple, or to use pictures or symbols. Sign language is often helpful. The child may take longer to process information; they may not understand rules or instructions. Be patient. It is probably just as frustrating for the child as it is for you. Praise them when they understand or when they’re able to successfully communicate something to you.

(The subject of communication with a child with autism is far too complex to discuss adequately here. Consult with your child’s doctor or therapist to develop a treatment plan that will best suit your child’s specific needs.)

Play:

Play can be difficult for children with autism. They may prefer to play alone, rather than with other children. They may want to play with others, but not know how. They may find it difficult to choose what to do. Nevertheless, it is important to provide playtime for them. Let their specific interests be your guide.

Stimming

Everyone “stims,” or self-stimulates, to some degree. Common stimulating behaviors include:
  • Biting your fingernails
  • Twirling your hair around your finger
  • Cracking your knuckles
  • Drumming your fingers
  • Tapping your pencil
  • Jiggling your foot
  • Whistling

Most stimming behavior is not annoying to others but if it is—if your constant clicking of a pen bothers someone—you generally pick up on the cue by the look on their face, and you stop the clicking.

 

But the stimming of a person with autism often takes much more noticeable forms. These might include:
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers
  • Bouncing, jumping, or twirling
  • Pacing or walking on tiptoes
  • Pulling hair
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Repetitive blinking
  • Staring at lights or rotating objects, such as a ceiling fan
  • Licking, rubbing, or stroking particular objects
  • Sniffing people or objects
  • Rearranging objects

An autistic person will continue these stimming behaviors until he or she is calmed or consoled—which may be hours. More serious behaviours, such as head banging, hitting, biting, rubbing skin or scratching, or swallowing dangerous items, can cause physical harm and necessitate an intervention.

 

Take Time Out For You

Living with or helping an autistic child can be draining and overwhelming—for you and the child. You are vital to your child’s success. Therefore, your wellbeing is of the utmost importance.

Make arrangements for respite care for your child so you can take care of yourself. Engage in hobbies, go for a walk, take a class, have a spa day. Or, just sit quietly and listen to music, read a book, and enjoy the beauty of nature.

You may find it helpful to seek therapy for yourself. It’s a good place to discuss all the emotions that arise because of your circumstances.

And if you have a partner, make sure that you make time for him or her. Be sure to build a “date night” into your routine. It is vital that the two of you are a team and that you nourish your relationship. And since caring for an autistic child can place strain on a marriage, marital therapy may give you and your partner some welcome relief.

 

Famous People on the Autism Spectrum

The autistic child is not doomed to live an unaccomplished life. Many famous current and historical figures are on the spectrum (hint: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates!) Do an Internet search for “famous people with autism.” You’ll no doubt be surprised at the names you see.

Take heart. No matter where on the autism spectrum your child falls, he or she is wonderful, lovable, and can enrich your life.