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Article of Interest - Therapy Options

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Bridges4Kids LogoMind-boggling Therapy
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 $3,000.

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 Eric's experience.

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 others do.

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 kids.

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 online.

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 Solomon says.

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 certain extent.

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 learning.

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 therapies.

"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 it affordable?


"Sensory 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, positive change."


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