Using Neurofeedback Therapy as a Treatment of Autism: Is it worth it or not?

Neurofeedback as Autism Treatment

Of all the therapies that parents choose to try on their Autistic children and teens I find one to be exceptionally interesting; that being Neurofeedback Therapy (NFT), or EEG Biofeedback. It is also called “Brainworks” overseas. NFT is a route that some parents take to “retrain” their children’s brain to respond more appropriately to outside stimuli. The main purpose being to improve the child’s quality of life. But the concept of the therapy raises more questions than it does answers.

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People who have tried it swear it offers inner transformation.” Journalist Jini Reddy claims, “a profound lessening of anxieties, awakened states, feelings of elation and the focused, clear, calm mind more readily accessed through years of effortful practices.” During NFT essentially an EEG (electroencephalography) records the waves of electrical activity emitted by your brain. The basic idea of neurofeedback therapy is that if you have the frequency of these waves shown to you, via sounds or images, you can “learn to exert some control over them.”

As the Psychology Today pointed out, some people may instantly be transported back to the 1960s and 70s when then futuristic names like ‘Zygon Corporation’ banked on the discovery that "experienced meditators show high levels of alpha brave-waves when they are in a meditative trance." From there they started selling these at home EEG kit and teach your brain to achieve this state of “alpha consciousness.”

Brain Core Neurofeedback’s website calls this form of therapy, “a state-of-the-art, non-invasive, drugless method for teaching the brain to function in a more balanced and healthful way.” They call it “a simple and pleasant learning modality that can help shift the way the brain produces and distributes its electrical energy.” As they explain, four divisions of electrical impulses are made by our brain; the Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta. They are called “Frequency Bands”. Per the company, “these Frequency Bands tell us which parts of your brain are active and which frequency bands the brain should be using to complete a given task, activity or should be most active during different states of mind.”

It is used for a number of things such as:
-Autism
-Behavioral Problems
-ADHD
-Seizures
-Sleep Disorders
-Anxiety
-Brain Injury

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During the first NFT appointment the doctor will take a brainwave baseline for analysis and gather a medical and physical history on your child. During each sub-sequential appointment your child is hooked up to an EEG machine with many electrodes. This is where my curiosity peaks. My child has had several EEGs and sleep studies. Getting him to keep the electrodes on is a challenge. I wonder how they are able to make an Autistic child comfortable enough with the process to allow it over multiple sessions.

Provided your child allows the therapy, their brain activity is recorded while they are shown pictures and asked to react and respond. They are then shown print outs of their own brain activity. They are then guided in altering the activity for a more encouraging response from your child in situations where they struggle. As with most therapies, this one isn’t cheap either. So, you must weigh your options. There are reports of it costing from $90-$150 per session over a course of 30-40 sessions. There are also reports that this form of therapy will not work for Autism.

Per the Psychology Today, the late psychologist, and skeptic, Barry Beyerstein explained in a series of essays and book chapters published in the 80s and 90s, that unfortunately the logic of this therapy is flawed. As he explained, just because a meditator is “in a state of bliss exhibits high levels of alpha waves doesn’t mean those alpha waves are playing a causal role in her state of bliss.” As Beyerstein wrote, “the correlation no more implies that alpha wave production can produce a meditative state than opening one’s umbrella can make it rain.”

Beyerstein’s extensive research showed that the “beneficial effects of EEG feedback were related to a person’s belief in the technology, not to any alterations in their brainwaves.” Given the website that is campaigning for this treatment states that: “During normal daily activities such as balancing our checkbooks or following directions in class, certain areas of our brain will need to be active and using the faster frequency called Beta. On the other hand, if after a long day we wish to relax and wind down, a different part of the brain will need to be activated using the slower brainwave frequency called Alpha.

The goal of Neurofeedback is to improve the brain’s ability to self-regulate, maintain flexibility, and smoothly shift between states of relaxation and arousal. Since the Brain also controls Attention Regulation, Emotional Regulation and Affect Regulation, this ultimately allows the entire Central Nervous System to resume normal functioning.” I see where there can be room for skepticism.

It is also pointed out that other studies on NFT have stated that, “the notion that alpha neurofeedback can enhance the mood of healthy individuals has yet to be firmly established.” If it isn’t proven to work on healthy people, it leaves you to wonder if it would work on Autistic individuals. Studies in this area also tend to be of poor quality. They are lacking the control groups and proper blinding that studies such as these require. Because of this, clients and their trainers usually know who’s receiving the EEG feedback. This brings in placebo-like factors out of the picture. Still, it is an interesting thought. Retraining our brains in order to more healthily react to outside stimuli. However, for that price, I’m not about to try it without sound scientific findings that it works; however, it may be for some of your children to try.

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Comments

No, there is not enough data to convince me that it actually can be of some benefit.
Only those who never tried a set of sessions with an experienced Neurofeedback Practitioner are the only ones that can say that it doesn’t work. I’ve been working with Neurofeedback with ASD population since 2002 having excellent outcomes. Hundred of families are first hand witnesses of this!