Welcome to my Brainy Lady blog! This is where I get to take off the doctor’s coat (it's not mine--yet), tie it around my waist and share autism tips, surprising brain science, funny personal stories and painful doctorate program homework complaints… okay, maybe I'll avoid that last one. Regardless, I hope to offer insights and invite the same while enjoying a cup of coffee with the autism, neuroscience, psycophysiology, parenting, spiritual, thinking, comedic, curious community! If that leaves you out, I'm sorry and suggest you try on one of the many hats. One is bound to fit!

Don’t Medicate: Let’s Play For Healthy Brain Growth!

While I was raising my sons I found myself faced with an “opposite” dilemma, in that while most parents were wondering if they were bad parents for putting their children on medication, I was wondering if my refusal of medication meant I was a bad mom. So I tried giving them some, just to be good.

Let me explain: I raised eight children. Of my eight kids, six were adopted and four of the six were on the spectrum of autism. Most people wanted me to medicate–especially the teachers. Eventually they wore me down and I tried Ritalin for three of them and Haloperidol for the other. The Haloperidol was good for six weeks until my son’s brain adjusted and then it wasn’t anymore. The Ritalin was always good … to the adults working with them. But to my sons… it was lonely. It made them notice their difference and fear the crash of late afternoon. It also left them awake all night and me exhausted.

However, even if I hadn’t been dreaming of dreaming, I doubt that I would ever have been comfortable with this experimentation process, because during it I never heard a single professional refer to my children as anything other than controllable. The thing is, I was looking for helpable and healable. I wasn’t wanting reasonable, hopeless, and trained. I also wasn’t wanting drugged.

So – feeling like a good mom for having tried – I threw the pills out and continued to look for answers.

I found some. And then I trained and certified and educated and began to spread what I knew, globally.

So here is a little of what I have discovered (By the way, three of my sons grew into successful independent men while the forth -with the help of his fiancé – is still trying.):

A child is often hyper simply because their brain is so tired that they have to keep moving to stay focused. You can drug them so that they sit at the desk or – as I chose to do – design walk and talk lesson plans that keep the brain stimulated while the person learns. The fresh air and movement keeps them alert and because brain activity and neuronal growth increase in the areas being used the wanted brain behavior in the desired part of the cortex strengthens. Thus, the need for chemical stimulants usually disappears. Though, the child/adult may still have to study for exams while walking on the treadmill. That’s a win/win.

Keeping the brain awake enough to help it learn to be awake for learning is the trick; sometimes it’s as simple as using the trucker’s trick of chewing ice, or carrots while studying. A slow steady intake of green tea and a good supply of brain vitamins like Focus Factor is another method for boosting the brain to operate correctly while it learns to help itself.

Of course, in mine and my children’s case—yes, I needed help too–as well as the cases of most of my clients the issue is pretty severe and needs more than movement, B vitamins and chewing gum to set things right.

So though I was clearly onto something with dietary changes (like avoiding pesticides, hmmm there’s a thought) and incorporating movement, I was still searching.

I discovered what I have come to see as the dynamic duo: play and neurofeedback. Neurofeedback (biofeedback for the brain) is complimentary to play because it is a reinforcing video game run by your brain waves, and in this exercising of brain wave control a cascade of healthy brain changes occur. This is also true of physical, competitive, and imaginative play. Especially when it is done with the awareness that – as you interact with another person – you are a feedback mechanism. Thus when you congratulate and delight in someone you encourage that person to grow more and more skilled at whatever activity you are engaged in.

To help people understand what neurofeedback is I often analogize it with learning to listen for your parents footsteps when you are late night chatting with your friends. You want to hear your parents, so you do nothing more than make their footsteps important and then let your brain do the rest. When your dad’s toe hits the first step there is a subtle shifting in the way you pay attention and filter sound, you don’t know how you do it but you do it. In the case of neurofeedback you make the game important and so when it gives reward tones and the score increases as you adjust your brain waves (initially quite by accident as a simple byproduct of being alive) you and your brain try to figure out how, and like in the case of the footsteps, you adjust your focus and filtering systems which are connected to your neurons etc.

This activity strengthens your brain, leads you to balance, and eases stress. At this point of comfort I use play to teach new skills.

Initially “special children” do the neurofeedback for me because I am so much fun they don’t want me to leave. Then, once they know that it makes them feel better, they do it for themselves.

Many people assume that if their children aren’t interested in video games or things of that nature then they won’t benefit from neurofeedback. This is not true in my experience, because brains operate on pattern recognition and are driven to want control. Thus their brain will try and control the reward tone even if the child has a “who cares” attitude.

All that being said, a stronger brain is still going to look to its environment for information–so neurofeedback isn’t enough. Environmental support and enrichment is a must.

Unfortunately, most programs train special children rather than grow them.

When you grow a child you give him the sunshine of play, and you rain compliments upon them. You steer them to want to participate and stretch for the light. You feed them lovingly and breathe in their wonder. When you train a child you do drills and make reports and ask them to comply. The first one creates independence, the second one doesn’t.

An example of how to encourage skills through play is to ask your child if they want to have a food fight. Assuming they like the idea you can move to problem solving the food to fight with. This may sound absurd at first, but it’s the outrageousness of the play idea that grabs enough attention to make it possible to actually learn typical, or “boring” skills well enough to remember and generalize them. If done correctly (and with a fair amount of pizazz) a child can learn money skills–as in replacement cost. Food categories and spoiling issues–as in eggs are fun but they carry salmonella. Proper clean up, clothing choices, location etc are all (pardon the pun) food for thought. In fact, this game could easily replace an entire day of school. Depending on your child’s functioning level and ability to cooperate it may replace weeks.

The beauty of this approach is that, in the case of autism for example, social skills and inappropriateness is a big deal. Play encourages connection while also creating opportunities for teaching appropriateness– as in where you can food fight and with whom.

So what does all of this have to do with medicine? Well… everything.

When people try medicine there is often an initial benefit that is hard to recreate. This is sometimes called the “first time effect” and refers to the phenomena of why many people chase after a repeat performance of their first time experience. This is the initial basis at the foundation of all addiction (and trust me, trying to heal your child can be an addiction) and leads to things like higher and higher doses, a parade of newer and more unusual prescriptions as the tried and trues wear out, and meds leaning upon meds like a game of pharmaceutical Twister as people are too afraid to stop something that helped once, while still reaching for and adding something that they hope will help now.

As an example of this last point I recently worked with a five year old boy who had been on an antidepressant since he was two. According to the parents their son was never depressed or negatively emotional, but the doctor believed the drug would encourage growth in the frontal lobes. This child had also been in Applied Behavior Analysis for that same period of time. The family had stopped the ABA but they were afraid to stop the medicine (just in case it was actually helping) even though there had been no gains – at all – during those three formative drug taking years.

Fear and a lack of knowledge creates this vicious cycle that is perpetuated by a lack of options and a system that supports medicine more than health. It is unfortunate because in five days of play and neurofeedback this young man succeeded in speaking, playing, pottying, and befriending. Now that’s a first time effect worth chasing.

So here are some tips:

1– If it will save your life take the medicine.
2– If it will help you heal take the medicine
3– If it will be short term while you recreate your lifestyle and you can’t get there without it, take the medicine.
4– If it will be non addictive and fits the criteria for 2,3,4 take the medicine.
5– If you are done with living and want to leave in peace take the medicine.

Otherwise, don’t.

Find a new way to move forward.

You may need to give your child a stimulant to help them focus so the teacher stops bullying them, but then look around for an alternative school or prepare for home schooling or find a new class.

Assume the school wants to grow your child and offer ideas like having him stand at the back of the room because he can listen better while standing, and get permission for gum chewing as the activity often helps with focus. If your child is lower functioning and in a special class then teach the teacher to encourage her by using her favorite activity as a means of getting her to join in like: “If your happy and you know it spin around”.

The beauty of neurofeedback and play is, though they also have a first time effect that hooks you to want more, as you do more and more the lesser impact of the therapy does not lead to an increase in sessions. Because the lesser impact comes from the fact that the brain has grown stronger and has less need. In general, psycho pharmaceuticals have the opposite effect.

I believe play/biofeedback should be our first line of defense with autism (and many other disorders like seizures and depression) since it can reduce the constant stress so many ASD individuals feel without creating any dependency. I also believe it is up to us to make choices, rather than follow instructions, even when they look the same.