in New Visions Magazine. Recent research on autism is showing great
success with neurofeedback. Diversity of successful neurofeedback
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
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
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
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.