Autism and Biofeedback
Biofeedback & Autism
by Gary Ames, Appeared in New Visions Magazine, Nov. Dec., 2006
Johnny, age 7, was fascinated for hours by running water, lost in his own world. Like many autistic children he ran on his toes and flapped his hands to self-stimulate in hopes of controlling all the noise in his head. Even minor frustrations turned into emotional meltdowns including seizures.
When Johnny came to his first brain biofeedback sessions he would retreat under the chairs. He did not talk or read. One year and 60 sessions later he makes friends wherever he goes and acts like the Mayor of the waiting room. All his autistic symptoms have now disappeared except that he is reading one year behind grade level. He now hugs his mommy out of his love for her.
Autism is a severe lifelong neuro-biological disorder characterized by limitations of communication and socialization. Autism has grown at an alarming rate from 5 in 10,000 births in 1970 up to 1 in 166 births in 2003. Little is known about the cause of autism and related disorders on the Autism spectrum such as Asperger’s.
Autistic infants typically grow normally for 12-18 months and then begin losing social and communication skills. The ability to imitate disappears. There is usually poor expressive language skills. An autistic child’s outward expression never includes the triad of facial expression, word and gesture. These children do not socialize with others on the playground. Rather than a true relationships, interactions are utilitarian. Autistic children use people as tools, for example bringing mom to the refrigerator and guiding her hand to get food.
Scientific research and clinical practice are showing brain biofeedback to be a very promising remedy for autism spectrum disorders. All biofeedback starts with monitoring an aspect of your body’s functioning and consists of interacting with a display of your physiology. For example, as people are relaxing their hands grow warmer. Imagine holding a digital thermometer in your fingers and letting your hand temperature go up as you relax. Biofeedback is natural, benign and non-invasive. Adverse effects from biofeedback are rare and minor such as a brief headache.
The most exciting research for autism is with brain biofeedback, called neurofeedback. For 35 years brain wave biofeedback has used software connected to an EEG to produce significant improvement in numerous disorders including seizures, migraine, and ADHD. Long term follow ups show that results are sustained and that people can shed their medications.
Recent research is proving that neurofeedback also reduces the symptoms of autism. One recent study reported a 92% success rate with an average 42% reduction in autistic symptoms. We know that biofeedback generally enhances self-regulation. Speculation about how neurofeedback works includes fostering self-repair of communication pathways and promoting maturation of brain functions.
The newest form of neurofeedback is called hemoencephalography (blood-brain-image) or HEG. HEG is proving especially effective for autism. Infrared heat sensors on the head can detect blood flow within the brain. In HEG biofeedback sessions you train to increase either blood perfusion or oxygenation at specific sites such as the frontal cortex. Infrared photos show the effect to last for days and the total effect to be cumulative.
HEG training seems to work like exercise that irrigates underdeveloped areas of the brain. Think of adding more RAM into your computer. Greater brain metabolism becomes improved neural function which shows up as better behavior and new levels of achievement.Progress from neurofeedback tends to be across the board spanning: frustration tolerance, habits, sleep, cognitive, social, emotional, behavioral and executive mental functioning.
As technology advances specific neurofeedback strategies and combinations are still being developed. Some neurofeedback practitioners focus on correcting brain wave amplitudes and bringing them in line with norms. Some use EEG brain maps to guide their training of certain frequencies at particular parts of the scalp; others use symptoms to guide placement and frequencies. For example if there are too many fast beta waves in the occipital cortex (corresponding to a busy mind) then sensors would be placed on the back of the head and the client would play computer games that reward reduced activity at 23-38 Hz.
Other professionals train down excess variability of EEG signals across the entire spectrum of brain waves at central locations on the scalp. A few practitioners have clients perform various types of mental processing challenges while training such as reading or listening to stories.
In addition to brain wave amplitudes, inter-site coherence can be a goal of EEG biofeedback training. The idea here is that you don’t want too much nor too little correspondence between activity at separate sites within the brain. Specialized brain maps indicate abnormality of co-modulation between each pair of 19 sites. This mapping guides training to normalize this aspect of the EEG. All of these methods and other approaches are integrated into the neurofeedback regimen in several ways depending on the case and the practitioner. A standard of practice has not been defined.
Using any variety of neurofeedback approaches, we see near complete success for 90% of those with migraines in 20 sessions. Garden variety ADD takes 40 sessions to clear up for 80% of clients. Autistic spectrum disorders are more severe and take a larger number of sessions to produce more modest results.
Biofeedback software is now so advanced that it is fairly easy to use. The price of equipment has come down so that it has become practical for some parents to do neurofeedback training in their home under the guidance of a professional.
No one is talking about a complete “cure” for autism. However clinical successes and experimental research are progressing just as it has for the several other disorders that neurofeedback has virtually conquered. For autism, there is promising scientific research of significant improvement and reports of seriously impaired clients like Johnny completing neurofeedback training with no more autistic symptoms whatsoever.
Gary Ames is a licensed psychologist specializing in biofeedback in Bala Cynwyd, PA and Executive Director of a wrap around agency in Montgomery and Bucks Counties. Contact him via his web site: www.AlertFocus.com or phone 610-668-3223.