Thursday, 7 February 2019

Autism & Brain Balance

Achieving balance has been a core goal of humanity since time began.

Our bodies are in a constant state of flux as we attempt to maintain internal homeostasis (sometimes by eating a healthy diet and exercising.... and sometimes by peeing out last night's ill-advised third glass of Rioja).
Our kidneys are the main circus masters in orchestrating our physiological balancing act, and I really like to make mine earn their money by occasionally replacing most of my blood with a nice wheat beer, mixed up with a generous handful of luminous blue M&Ms for good measure.
Working on the principle that adversity can tease out the best in us, I have the most robustly functioning kidneys in the country.

Cultures and religions aim to reach spiritual harmony by equalising dark and light, chaos and order, good and evil.  It's a human struggle dramatised in every story from Greek mythology to My Little Pony (My Little Pony is dark).
Achieving balance is devilishly elusive for most of us mere mortals (with the exception maybe of a few extra-chill dudes hanging out in the Himalayas), but it's something we're programmed to strive for.

"We're screaming on the inside"

We attempt to reach a work/play balance by working five days a week, and spending the remaining two in a state of debauched semi-consciousness.
Nature itself is locked in a delicate dance of equalising environmental conditions to maximise the wellbeing of our planet, and everything that lives on it.

Striking the level sweet spot physically, socially and psychologically is our jam.

It's little wonder, really, that any therapy promising to make a level playing field out of our chaotic lives snags our attention, and sells us the hope that one day we could join the ranks of ordered civilisation.  But promises like this tend to set more alarm bells than joy bells ringing in me.
A rule of thumb; if it looks too good, and it sounds too good.... it's probably an autism "therapy".

I'm pretty sure if I ever approach anything resembling balance, though,  that my innards will explode and I'll die of confusion.   My default position seems to be anxious, bordering on neurotic, so anything approaching normality would pose a very real threat of blowing the last few functioning circuits I have.  I'm not convinced that 'normality' is the safest road to live on, or if it even exists.

That said, when you live with an autistic child, there are moments when you feel that it'd be kinda nice if you got more than three hours of unbroken sleep a night, or if you didn't have to script chunks of his favourite cartoon (in German) to calm him down.
A multi-lingual insomniac does not a good parent make.

So when I stumbled across Brain Balance as an autism therapy, it caught my eye; a title that not-accidentally uses the words 'balance' (what autism parent doesn't want a bit of that?) and 'brain', (which lends a sense of sciency intelligence) is designed to appeal to parents whose lives are a struggle of unpredictable chaos.
A slice of brainy peace would go down very well in our lives.

Brain Balance (developed by Dr Robert Melillo) promotes combining the disciplines of sensory-motor skills, academic exercises and nutritional changes to correct a child's developmental deficits (caused by imbalances between the brain's hemispheres).
It promises to help not only autistic kids, but also those with ADHD, Dyslexia, those with social and behavioural issues, as well as those with sensory integration issues.  It promotes itself as a drug-free, non-medical therapy which is not shy about including statements like 'autism can become a thing of the past' in its sales pitch.
It's easy to see how parents can be attracted by the promise that the brain can be changed (and therefore fixed) by implementing a set of tangible exercises and rules; the urge for parents to "do" something to help their child is a powerful one.

Brain Balance is a hugely successful franchise (if you count success in fiscal overturn and the volume of kids shunting through it's six month programme).  The families of 25,000 kids have spent typically $10,000 to complete the  programme, turning over an annual revenue of about 50 million dollars.
That's a lot of money, and a lot of children, but is there any evidence that it works?  Afterall, there are more important measures of success than healthy accounts.

First up, Melillo has a doctorate in chiropractic, and not in conventional medicine.   His qualifications seem to have been awarded from unaccredited institutions, some of which no longer exist.
I might as well award myself a degree in Being Fabulous (with a post grad diploma in Having Well Behaved Hair) from the University of Shit Hot Mommas, and then tell people this qualifies me to have a play with the plasticity of your kids brains.
It goes without saying, that a doctorate in chiropractic does not equal a neurologist, no matter how lovely your hair is. 

In reality, despite glowing testimonials, there is very little evidence that Brain Balance is an effective therapy.  A dozen experts in Autism and ADHD argue that the notion of 'imbalanced hemispheres' is too simplistic to explain complex disorders, and there is no solid evidence to support dietary exclusion as a therapy.

A small handful of scientific papers exist supporting the use of Brain Balance (one of which was co authored by Melillo who obviously has a vested interest in producing positive data); but critics have found serious shortcomings in these. One paper which positively reviews Brain Balance was published in an obscure journal, was penned mostly by chiropractors (with one MD), had no control group and only looked at one aspect of the therapy.... in other words it has all the reliability of a fox in a chicken coop.
There is no biological basis to support the idea that 'imbalances' in the brain cause autism; nothing can be measured or scanned to corroborate this.  There are no credible pieces of research proving that this therapy has a positive effect on autism.
Testimonials carry no weight, and could all have been written by the developer's doting granny for all we know.

"I'm just having a look"

Melillo's statement that 'just because something's not proven, doesn't mean it doesn't work'  doesn't  cut any ice.... by that logic, I can decide that it's unproven than I can't sing like Lady GaGa, so next weekend I'm going to slap on a meat dress and book the 3 Arena.

In short, Brain Balance doesn't work, and will do nothing more than relieve you of a sizeable chunk of cash.
Save your money and buy a ticket for my gig instead... I'll be barbequing my dress later.


  1. Absolute class as always! Thanks for the research and brilliant writing. X

    1. Ah thanks so much Hannah. I'm really glad you enjoyed it x