Innovative 'intervention' treatment really helps autistic
children, some say.
by Kim Crawford, Flint Journal, June 21, 2004
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The little boy's
greeting came as a shock to Bradley Habermehl.
"He smiled, looked me in the eye and said, 'Hello, Dr. Habermehl,
how are you today?' " the Genesee Township optometrist says.
That may seem like no big deal except the boy, Eric Callahan,
diagnosed as having mild-to-moderate autism, hadn't looked
people in the eye and said hello before. This was a child who
had flapped his arms, walked on his tiptoes and had terrible
tantrums - a boy who didn't like interacting with others and who
wasn't very verbal. But those behaviors were now gone; Eric was
a different child.
Habermehl, astonished, looked over at Eric's mom, Rene Callahan
of Howell. There were tears in her eyes.
"What," Habermehl asked, "did they do to him?"
"They" referred to the Sensory Learning Institute in Boulder,
Colo., where Callahan took her son in the spring of 2003 for an
"intervention" regimen developed by a researcher named Mary
Bolles, whose son was autistic.
Habermehl, whom Callahan had consulted about vision therapy for
Eric, says he lost no time. He wanted to know more about Bolles'
sensory learning program right away.
"I called Mary that day. I said, 'I'm coming out to Boulder, and
I'm bringing two staff members with me,' " he remembers.
Within six months, Habermehl opened the Flint Sensory Learning
Center at his optometry practice on Richfield Road. Since
August, people have come from all over the United States and
Canada, bringing 170 children and adults suffering from autism,
Asperger's syndrome, brain injuries, attention deficit disorder
or hyperactivity for treatment that some parents say is positive
and dramatic, but that critics complain is expensive and
scientifically unproved. The cost of the regimen is about
Habermehl says that more than 90 percent of the parents who have
brought their children for treatment, which he calls
"educational intervention," have seen changes for the better,
including children who are more verbal, more empathetic, calmer
and better able to learn.
"It's not a cure, but it was quite dramatic," says Rene
Callahan, who now works for Habermehl as a "parent advocate,"
telling inquiring parents about the sensory learning program and
But Dr. Richard Solomon, a physician and head of the
developmental and behavioral pediatric section of the University
of Michigan's department of pediatrics and communicable
diseases, says anecdotal tales of success are not proof that
sensory learning actually works.
"There needs to be some objective measure of outcomes," says the
Ann Arbor doctor, who has dealt with autistic children and their
families for years. "Until they can do that, the best you can
say is that parents who bring their children to these clinics
risk throwing away $3,000."
The theory behind Mary Bolles' sensory learning program is that
children who have autism and other developmental disorders don't
process sensory information around them the way the rest of us
do. Bolles has noted in articles that when her autistic son
would fall and skin his knees or hit his head, he did not seem
to feel pain.
For some autistic children, the tag on the back of their shirt
collar touching their skin may feel like they're being jabbed;
some do not like to be touched or held and can be upset by loud
sounds long after they should be able to handle such things. In
other words, these children don't perceive and can't integrate
stimuli or what's going on in the world around them the way
To address this, Bolles says she researched which therapies
worked in terms of stimulating the sensory experiences of light,
sound and motion in such children - and then put them together.
In her "sensory learning" treatment, a child lays on a table in
total darkness, typically holding the hand of a parent for
comfort, since the experience is initially difficult for many
This table slowly moves in a gentle, rotating motion, sometimes
from left to right and other times from "head to toe." At the
same time, headphones placed over the child's ears play music,
but with the input going in the right ear twice that of the
left. According to some theory, this "right ear dominance"
stimulates the left side of the brain, where the language and
communication centers are located.
The only thing the child sees during this process is a circle of
light shining directly overhead, with the color of the light
changing over the course of the sessions. This light stimulation
comes from a kind of vision therapy.
According to Bolles' theory, a child who undergoes these
sessions is subconsciously re-learning, or re-programming, the
way he senses motion, balance, light and sound, opening the way
for them to better perceive and understand the world.
The sessions take place for 12 days, usually twice a day for 30
minutes. After this, parents are sent home with a kind of light
box to continue the visual portion of the therapy at home for 20
minutes each day for another 18 days.
"The therapy brings forth the ability to handle complex sensory
activities and environments, which were previously impossible
and often overwhelming," Bolles writes in an article published
But medical science says there is no serious evidence this
works. A school psychologist who wrote about related "sensory
integration" therapies in the fall of 2002 said that the
available studies so far showed that these have not worked.
"I've had patients who've been in sensory learning who didn't
make progress, but they're not telling you about them," UM's
Then why would people whose children who have gone through such
therapy swear they've benefited from it? Critics like UM's
Solomon say one possible explanation is the "placebo effect," or
the idea that if a person believes strongly in a treatment and
invests time and effort into it, then it will be successful to a
But Becky Good of Saginaw and Kelly Anglim of Grand Rapids
reject that idea. Like Rene Callahan, they were so impressed
with the effect the sensory program had on their young sons last
fall, they now work for Habermehl at the office.
"The changes were subtle, but they came quickly," says Good,
whose son, Connor, was 3 when he had the therapy. "At the end of
12 days, he made eye contact with you when he talked, which he
didn't do before. He showed more affection and interaction."
Soon Connor's teachers and therapist at the special ed preschool
he attends reported that he was participating, Good says.
Connor's pediatrician, impressed with what Good says are
"unbelievable changes" in the boy, now refers parents of
autistic children to Good so she can tell them about the sensory
Anglim says her son was nearly 3 when he underwent sensory
learning last fall. He'd been diagnosed with early childhood
developmental delay and could speak five words. Even as the
sessions were under way, she says, he began to use more words.
"He was not a happy baby," Anglim says about her son, James.
Before he started sensory learning, she says, testing showed he
was at the developmental stage of a typical 1-year-old.
"May was six months (since James had the therapy)," she says.
"Now he tests at his age level for all areas except speech, and
he's improved there."
Others aren't sure about the therapy's effects. Diane Miller of
Burton says her mildly autistic grandson, Vincent, 6, has been
through both Dr. Solomon's "P.L.A.Y. Project" (Play and Language
for Autistic Youngsters) and sensory learning, as well as other
"Vince is doing better, but can we say why? No, it's
impossible." she says. "We grasp at straws; we try anything that
we've heard about that we think might help."
Ric McNally, a Flint attorney and president of the Autism
Society of Michigan, agrees. His autistic son, Franklin,
underwent the sensory learning, but McNally can't say if it made
an big impact on the teenager.
"Yes, Frank is doing better, but is it because of this?" McNally
asks. "We've tried lots of different therapies to help him. I
have three criteria about that. Is there a down side for him? Is
it something that's close-ended or does it go on and on? And is
learning doesn't hurt a child. There's a finite number of
treatments - 12 days in the clinic and 18 at home. And it costs
$3,000, which I think is affordable.
"When people ask me if they should put their child into this, I
tell them, 'If I had to decide to do it over again, I would.' "
Habermehl says he not only believes that sensory learning is
beneficial for most of the patients, he thinks a scientific
study of his patients will prove it. He's met with
representatives of the University of Michigan, Oakland
University and Henry Ford Hospital to discuss that. But whether
it happens, he believes that the vast majority of parents who
have brought their children with developmental problems have
improved, some dramatically.
"I'm a clinician, I'm not a Ph.D," he says. "What I see means
more to me than a study."
Parents, he says, aren't analytical, but they know their
children and they know how difficult life can be for and with
kids who have autism and other similar conditions.
"When a 21-year-old who's never been potty-trained comes here,
and three weeks later he can use the bathroom, no, that's not a
cure," Habermehl says. "But for his parents, that's a big,
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