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Neurological Research and Neuro-developmental Approaches

By Svea Gold

Fern Ridge Press -- Eugene, Oregon --

Autistic children are often referred to as the puzzle children. But finding the answers to help them change is less like putting together a picture puzzle and more like solving a crossword puzzle. You go with the answers that you have and each answer may give you a further clue as to what needs to be done. The answers do not simply come out of just one book, or out the anecdotal material of one successful cure. They do not come out of just one book on nutrition, allergies, cranio-sacral therapy, nor do they come purely from the results of one specific neurological research. Often a therapy is successful and only later is research published that fully explains its success.

The answers come from many sources. Carl Delacato was the first to see that the label "autistic" is merely an overall, encompassing term for certain symptoms that a child displays. He was the first to observe that each patient brought to him suffered from some form of sensory distortions and that these distortions determined how the child reacted to the world. He then went on to evaluate which senses were involved and used either desensitization or stimulation to make them more normal so that the child could function. What he essentially pioneered is that each child labeled autistic must be evaluated as a totally individual person.

What caused these sensory distortions? It is only in the last 30 years that research with PET Scans and MRI´s of autistic children has pinpointed problem areas. They may be in the cerebellum, in the thalamus, in the parietal cortex and in the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately every time neurologists identify a problem in the brain this seems to destroy any hope parents may have had to help their child.

The first tragedy is that no one asks: "If a child has a problem in one part of the brain, how does this child experience his world?"

The second is, that we continue to treat these children as if they experienced their world as most people do, and make demands they can´t possibly fulfill.

The third one is that we still consider a problem in the brain as final prognosis. This is an erroneous concept -- we know today that the brain is plastic and we can cause new connections to be made.

We don´t even have to do an MRI to look into a child´s brain. A functional screening, or a reflex evaluation can give us a clear indication as to what goes into the child rather than just what comes out of a child. Any child on the vast spectrum of autism that reaches from complete withdrawal, to behavior problems and ADD, is entitled to such an evaluation.

The question in each case is this: why, if the rest of the brain is normal, are these areas affected?

Most neurologists have evaluated only the cortex or the cerebellum of autistic children. Then Dr. Patricia Rodier, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology with a postdoctoral specialty in embryology, performed autopsies on the brains of formerly autistics. According to her article in Scientific American (February, 2000) she consistently found an area in the brainstem that apparently was affected by damage from toxicity during the prenatal period. She noticed the similarity to the damage caused by Thalidomide.

She places the incidence of toxicity during the early weeks of gestation, and interestingly enough, this coincides with the period of development in utero that Sally Goddard connects with a retained fear paralysis reflex. This is the reflex, if it is retained beyond the first few weeks in utero, she found to be the cause of elective mutism a form of autism in which the child can´t talk. In normal development, it should transform into the Moro Reflex. The Moro reflex starts in utero and then disappears about the second month after the baby is born. If the Moro does not disappear, you have a child who has exaggerated reactions to sounds, hot and cold, touch, and visual input and hearing.

The Patricia Rodier article also carries an insert that reports that autistic children are unable to let go of a new stimulus and go back to an earlier target. Michael I. Posner, in Images of Mind reports that people who have damage in the pulvinar have this same inability to move easily from one target to another. (The pulvinar is part of the thalamus.)

Seen from yet another angle, Dr. Norman Geschwind stated that if there were damage in the cortex, there would also be retrograde damage in the pulvinar. Abnormalities in this area can, therefore, be caused by damage from prenatal causes, by damage caused by fevers in early childhood, trauma at childbirth, possibly by a stroke or even a bad reaction to an immunization procedure.

Posner also correlates damage in the pulvinar with problems in the parietal cortex. The parietal cortex is specifically involved the awareness of our bodies. In other words, the neural connections in that part of the brain allow us to know what we could call our "ego" or our "self." In Zen and the Brain, James H. Austin talks about Kensho -- the Zen name for a flash of insight into a different reality of life. He describes this as a moment in which we lose all sense of self as we normally experience it. To achieve this feeling, he says, the parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex need to be put temporarily out of commission. It is therefore easy to theorize that people with autism or even with ADD, who according to Posner have problems in these areas, constantly experience this loss of self. Unfortunately they cannot tell us what is wrong, because they have never known their world any other way.

Most of the children who have been labeled ADD -- the upper end of the autism spectrum --- have no idea where their body is when they are quiet. To know they exist they must move because it is only through the information from their muscles that their brain is aware of their reality in space. Once we have created this awareness of their body through sensory stimulation, thus reprogramming their thalamus, they often calm down.

The tendency of the public, and sadly some professionals also, is to believe that the brain regulates everything in our functioning. The brain, however, relies almost entirely on its function on the information received though the body and the senses. Neither can exist without the other. To make changes in the structure of the brain, we therefore have access through all the sense organs: eyes, ears, nose tongue, skin and the proprioceptive receptors of the muscles. To stimulate just one of the senses is at best inefficient. None of them function in isolation, but act rather like vectors, or the light sources in a hologram.

The area which Patricia Rodier pinpoints as damaged in autistics the olivary complexes in the brain stem -- is the area in which visual control, vestibular input, and proprioceptive information are closely connected. Alan P. Hobson in The Dreaming Brain shows how important that area is. If the connections there do not function paralysis of gaze will result! These children cannot look at you! This is the area in which the nerves that control eye function are located. If a child´s eyes do not work together it is not a questions of weak muscles, it is an indication that in the brainstem - the computer that coordinates the vestibular, the visual and the kinesthetic something is not functioning. If a baseball player runs across the field to catch a ball, his body keeps moving, but the ball remains steady in his field of vision. If you get up from the couch to answer the phone, your body and your head position change -- but your eyes keep a steady image of what is on the TV screen. To children who have a problem in this area, when they move, the world does not stand still!

If there is damage in these connections in the brainstem, this is only the beginning of the problem. If information from the body does not connect with vision, vestibular information and proprioceptive (muscle) information, then this information can´t reach the thalamus -- and that is the switching station that in turn can´t send proper information into the parietal and prefrontal areas. Important information can´t go to the cerebellum either -- and these are the areas identified by the neurologists as showing abnormalities in the brain of people with autistic symptoms.

Now this does not negate that these children will also have allergies. Marshall Mandell, who first hoped that he could cure autism with allergy control, stated that if there are insufficient nerve cells in some part of the brain -- the moment there is an increase in fluid caused by the allergy, that fluid will put pressure on that particular area. This explains the variety of behavior changes caused by the allergies!

It does not negate that these children have hormone problems. When proper function is restored to areas in the brainstem and eventually reaches the hypothalamus, then hormone function will be stimulated. Different areas of the brain and brainstem both manufacture and use specific neurotransmitters. As the damaged areas receive new connections, balance of the different neurotransmitters will be restored without requiring outside drugs. The brain consists not only of electrical circuits; it is also a chemical factory.

Neurological research is constantly being ignored, because until recently it was believed that if there were problems in the brain, there was nothing that could be done. While research of nerve growth factors has been going on for eighty years, only recently has it become accepted that the brain is plastic and if we recapitulate early movements, we give the brain a chance to make connections that would have occurred under normal development.

Even twenty years ago, neurologists knew that if a certain part of the body is moved that information reaches a specific part of the brain. Now research has discovered the chemicals which when a muscle moves, guide the nerve impulse to a specific part of the brain. These chemicals are called Netrins and have such beautiful names as Semaphorin, Connectin and Repulsin. Over 100 such factors have been identified. So if we replicate the normal developmental movements we can enter the brain with the precision of a micro screwdriver without surgery.

If we can find the earliest reflexes and stimulate them until they either become desensitized -- such as the fear paralysis reflex which Sally Goddard implicates in elective mutism, -- or continue to stimulate the Moro until it becomes integrated, we can created many changes. Because of these chemicals, movements determined by each reflex put enough information into the brain that it can then go into the next step of developmental control.

Because of increased awareness too many children are labeled autistic, even though they are simply poorly organized neurologically. On the other hand there are many called "emotionally disturbed" or "behavior problem child" who could be helped if their behavior was recognized as falling within the vast spectrum of autism. This ranges in intensity from complete withdrawal to ADD and ADD/H.

The neurodevelopmental approach to helping autistic children does not target the symptoms; it targets those problems areas in the brain that make the symptoms inevitable. Once new connections are created in the brain, the "autisms" will disappear. To find out how best to help each one, a thorough functional neurological evaluation should be the right of every child, so that we can pinpoint what therapy is indicated. (Svea Gold, 2002)

Some suggested sources for information on the neurological aspects of autism

Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA l989

Brown Thomas S. and Patricia Wallace, Physiological Psychology, Academic Press, New York, l980

Delacato, Carl H., The Ultimate Stranger; the autistic child. Academic Therapy Publications, Novato, CA, 1974

Goddard, Sally, Reflexes, Learning and Behavior. Fern Ridge Press, Eugene, OR, 2002

Gold, Svea, If Kids Just Came With Instruction Sheets!! Fern Ridge Press, Eugene, OR, 1997

Kandel, Eric, et al., Principles of Neural Science, Third edition, Appleton and Lange, East Norwalk, CT, 1991.

Posner, Michael I. and Marcus E. Raichle, Images of Mind. Scientific American Library, New York, 1994.

VIDEO: Autism: Neurological Research and Neurodevelopmental Therapy. (by Svea Gold)

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RELATED BOOK: Reflexes, Learning and Behavior - A Window Into The Child´s Mind by Sally Goddard, $24.95

But a problem is not a problem if you can fix it - whether we are raising our children or helping those of the global village. This book deals with connections, not just single answers. Whether we are exploring behavior problems, learning disabilities, attention problems, delinquency or drug use, rarely does just one remedy apply. Neither do all remedies apply to every child. Even if only one of the many approaches suggested in this book helps only one child in a hundred, and that happens to be your child, or a child in your acquaintence, this may be the most important book you ever read.

RELATED BOOK: If Kids Just Came With Instruction Sheets!! by Svea Gold, $24.95

But a problem is not a problem if you can fix it - whether we are raising our children or helping those of the global village. This book deals with connections, not just single answers. Whether we are exploring behavior problems, learning disabilities, attention problems, delinquency or drug use, rarely does just one remedy apply. Neither do all remedies apply to every child. Even if only one of the many approaches suggested in this book helps only one child in a hundred, and that happens to be your child, or a child in your acquaintence, this may be the most important book you ever read.

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