Childhood development is known as one of, if not the most critical parts of an individual’s time of life. It is where our brain and behavior are most influenced by our physical, chemical, and social environments, and which shapes so much of the person that we become. The ability to regulate one’s mood and reactions in proportion to a demand, to mobilize focus, as well as have pro-social interaction with others, are fundamentally produced by brain processes that are developed in childhood, or prenatally. This also means that childhood is a time in life when neurological development is most susceptible to dysregulation. There are countless ways that different environmental and genetic forces can negatively impact developmental trajectory, and modern science still has more questions than answers in this regard.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a behaviorally defined neurodevelopmental disorder that has a wide range of severity, to include such conditions as Asperger Syndrome/Disorder (AD). Although ASD is not consistent with the expression of a single symptom or a particular cluster of symptoms, the most common presentations are characterized by:
Persistent deficits in social communication and interaction, nonverbal behaviors, and developing and maintaining relationships with others.
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities such as motor movements, speech, inflexible adherence to sameness or routines, and hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input and certain aspects of the environment.
Research on ASD over the last 20 years has made a lot of progress in identifying the possible causes and treatments. Neuroscience specifically has been able to identify how certain brain activity is implicated in Autism. Research in brain wave (EEG) activity has found several mechanisms common to the presentation of Autism; dysregulation of the mirror neuron system, seizure activity, and abnormal patterns of coherence.
The mirror neuron system, which provides the neurological hardware for understanding the intentions of others, learning through imitation, as well as empathy, is associated with an EEG rhythm known as “mu” and individuals with Autism exhibit abnormal mu rhythm function. Additionally, it is well recognized that individuals suffering from Autism demonstrate significant EEG abnormalities about 50% of the time, and upwards of 30% develop clinical seizures by adolescence.
The malleability of the brain offers a breath of relief for individuals with Autism, and their families. By targeting specific brain wave frequencies associated with everything from the mirror neuron system, to patterns of seizure activity, neurofeedback training has shown successful results in remedying dysfunction.
The ability of neurofeedback technology to target the various EEG abnormalities listed above, has provided tremendous promise to individuals with ASD. Studies showing neurofeedback training at the sensorimotor cortices yielded better results with mu rhythm function than at the more posterior (parietal) regions of the brain. Additionally, since its inception in the late 1960’s, neurofeedback has also been successful in reducing seizure (epileptiform) activity in the brain, offering another significant advantage for those with ASD.
Once the brain is trained and conditioned to perform in a more optimal and efficient manner, it tends to sustain the trained activity permanently. This is a paradigm shift from the conventional route of treatment using pharmacological means. Any drug provides its effect only while it is active in the body, and once it clears out, the effects simultaneously wear off. However, when a brain learns a different pattern of activity, as it does with neurofeedback, the structures and functions that have been reinforced continue to refine over time, due to their employment in normal daily life. Once the brain learns how to produce and maintain certain functions, it seeks to reproduce and improve upon them.
The brain training that occurs with neurofeedback is no different than the most basic kind of learning that the brain has evolved for, implicit learning. The key features of implicit learning are its unconscious mechanisms, and its permanence. In the same way that the pattern of muscle activity that produces the human gait becomes unconscious and continues to refine as the individual matures from youth to adulthood, similarly the brain tends to become refined over the course of its existence. This means that even after the completion of training, the brain continues to build upon the skills from neurofeedback.
It is reported that about 1 in 59 children in the US are diagnosed with ASD, making it the highest prevalence globally. The ability to affect the direction of a child’s life, as has been the case numerous times with neurofeedback, can make a difference between a life spent under the direct supervision of a caretaker/s, or having the ability to mature and proceed with one’s adolescent and adult development.
Sigfried and Susan Othmer are two of the most recognized and iconic figures in the development of neurofeedback therapy. Their personal story of a son who had such severe developmental disabilities, that out of pure exhaustion and desperation brought them to neurofeedback. The improvements that their son showed were so utterly baffling to them, that they dedicated the next 3-4 decades of their life, studying, developing, researching, and teaching the science of neurofeedback to others.
You can view this short documentary about their story in the link below: