Physical activity is the single most important factor in developing a normal well-balanced brain and nervous system, says Dr. Robert Melillo, author of Disconnected
Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with
Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders and creator of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers.
In this interview, Dr. Melillo shares with Commitment his unique and cutting-edge approach to helping children with neurological disorders. He recommends that parents "get the child off the couch and get them away from TV, computers, and video games and get them outside playing, socializing and interacting with their environment as much as possible...If they are not moving their bodies they are not interacting with their environment, they are not stimulating these genes that build connections and they are not stimulating certain networks on the right or left side of the brain to grow and mature. This leads to imbalances and all of the problems associated with them."
So is it a hopeless situation for children diagnosed with Autism, ADHD and other neurological disorders? Absolutely not, says Dr. Melillo. "The thing that motivates me here is not just that we are losing more and more children each year to these disorders with no end in sight, but that we are losing our best and our brightest... This message of hope for parents is the most important one." Read on for more from Dr. Melillo.
Commitment: Why is your book titled 'Disconnected Kids'? How are children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological disorders disconnected?
Dr. Robert Melillo: There are actually four reasons for the title of the book. The first is that children with various disabilities like Autism, ADHD and Aspergers syndrome children feel and move as if they are disconnected from their bodies.
This is why they often have problems with posture and gait, they are uncoordinated and have low muscle tone. We know this is the case because individuals who have grown up with these disorders have written books about their experiences, people like Temple Grandin. She has written that she feels disconnected from her body, she feels as if her body is broken up into pieces.
Another autistic gentlemen who grew up in India has written that his earliest memory as a four or five year old child was that he didn’t realize he had a physical body.
The reason he would flap his arms and rock back and forth was because this was the only way he could feel his body.
Another clue that these children don’t feel their bodies like other people is that they often don’t feel pain when they hurt themselves.
The fact that they are disconnected from their physical body is very important because it is actually directly related to another major problem, poor socialization.
Socialization is built on a foundation of nonverbal communication; this is the ability to look at someone’s body and face and subconsciously understand what one is feeling and thinking. To do this, an area of our brain on the right side actually mimics the person’s movement, posture, and facial expression subconsciously as if we were doing it.
We then say to ourselves “I know what that person is thinking and feeling, because when I do that with my body and face I feel like this.” In order for a child to relate to someone else in that way they must first be able to feel their own body and their own emotions.
If they are disconnected from feeling their own body they don’t develop this area of the brain and they don’t develop the ability to nonverbally communicate with others. The main communication problem in autism is not a verbal problem but rather a nonverbal problem.
Nonverbal communication is the foundation of all socialization and it is the foundation of verbal communication. Only twenty five percent of autistic children have a verbal disability, but one hundred percent have a nonverbal disability.
The main reason I used the title “Disconnected Kids” is because the primary problem that is common to children with Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia is known as a Functional Disconnection. In a Functional Disconnection there is a communication breakdown between large networks in the brain, especially in the two hemispheres of the brain. The brain is desynchronized and under connected in areas of the brain.
What seems to be happening is certain networks on one side of the brain are maturing at a normal or accelerated rate while other networks on the other side are maturing at a slower then normal rate. This creates different processing speeds in these networks; if they are too different they can’t bind together and share information processing. This leads to some skills being normal to advance along with other skills that are very delayed.
It would be as if you had a new computer with a fast processor and old computer with a slow processing chip. They both work fine independently; they are not broken but they cannot work together simply because they process information at different speeds.
The difference in the specific label and symptoms the child presents with has to do with which networks and which side of the brain is fast and which is slow.
The reason for the title is that these children start life disconnected from their bodies. This results in an emotional and social disconnection from themselves and others, but the main reason is that this is all a result of a functional disconnection between large networks in their brain.
Commitment: What have you discovered is a new way to treat children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological disorders that is different than the way the medical community dealt with these issues in the past?
Dr. Melillo: The medical, psychological and educational communities haven’t actually ever treated THE PROBLEM. The model has been one of just managing the symptoms and compensating for their disabilities. The reason for this approach has been the misconception that these problems are purely genetic based disorders. Therefore the belief is that one cannot significantly improve or eliminate these problems only compensate them.
However, with the recent statistics showing that autism has a prevalence of 1-91 in the US, more researchers are recognizing that these problems are not primarily genetic based disorders but are rather they are more environmentally based.
Research has failed to identify any actual gene mutations or abnormal genes related to any of these disorders. What we do see is that some perfectly normal genes have certain segments of the gene that should be turned on at a particular stage of development and that these segments are instead turned off.
This seems to be affecting the segment of the genes that regulate the development of functional connections in the brain. This means that there is nothing wrong with the gene per se, but that some environmental factor is affecting the expression of segments of the gene. This is a completely different scenario.
If we can find ways to simply turn this gene back on, we may completely eliminate the problem. Therefore identifying environmental sources, finding ways to turn the genes back on, and most importantly providing the right environmental and cognitive stimulation to activate the proper networks which will specifically address this functional disconnection that comes about as a direct result of these genes not being turned on, are the ways to actually treat the problem.
This approach is not currently being done routinely because the majorities of people out there don’t know about or understand the concept of functional disconnection. That is the purpose of my book and the centers; to raise awareness educate and address the primary problem.
Commitment: What is the Brain Balance program? What does it involve, and what is the goal of the program?
Dr. Melillo: The Brain Balance Program is a multimodal program that combines cognitive, academic, sensory, and motor stimulation with diet and nutrition and some basic behavior modification to specifically identify and activate networks in the brain that are underactive and immature.
The goal is to identify in real time any and all skills in a child and quantify the age and maturity level of that particular skill.
What we see in these children typically is that there are multiple areas of the brain and multiple systems involved. Some of these functions are advanced for their age or at least average, while others are significantly delayed. This can be even within the same system. For instance, in regard to auditory processing, the typical autistic child is hypersensitive to high frequency sounds, but is often under sensitive to low frequency sounds such as the type associated with nonverbal communication or tone of voice. The left hemisphere processes high frequency sounds whereas the right processes low frequency sounds.
So in this case to improve auditory processing we need to specifically stimulate the right hemisphere with low frequency sounds. This is what the Brain Balance Music is all about specifically stimulating one hemisphere or the other with particular music.
In the Brain Balance Program, we are not just looking at and addressing one piece of the puzzle. We will look at everything and then put a complete program together that addresses all of the child’s functional weaknesses as well as dietary and supplemental needs directed toward one hemisphere or the other. This increases the processing speed of specific networks.
The hemisphere that is slower and underactive can then reconnect and integrate with the networks and the hemisphere that is functioning normally.
To purchase this book, click here.
Commitment: Does a child's symptoms of ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological disorders really disappear after participating in the Brain Balance program?
Dr. Melillo: It is important to understand that we are not specifically looking to treat ADHD, Autism or Dyslexia per se as an individual condition. Our goal in our centers and in the book is to identify children that can’t learn because they have this functional imbalance in their brain. These children cannot learn through traditional means. Therefore they require a unique approach to education that needs to be more global in its approach It is specifically designed to address each child’s individual education needs.
Our goal with every child we see is to first identify children with functional imbalances that may be affecting their ability to learn, academically, physically, socially and emotionally. If the child has a problem that is not functional, (such as anatomical brain injury,) metabolic, or a true genetic or congenital disorder, then it is better served by having them treated by a medical or health care specialist.
If it is functional, then our goal is to identify and quantify their weak or immature skills and develop a specific educational program that teaches them and specifically strengthens the areas of the brain that are weak and immature to balance their skills.
Our goal is not to cure a disorder. Our goal is to bring as many of the child’s delayed skills up the appropriate age and functional level and balance their skills out.
When we do this we see that in many cases that children completely lose their diagnosis, (which is evaluated by an outside independent professional.)
We don’t diagnose or label disorders because we are learning centers; we educate children to their full potential. The reason they lose their diagnosis is because we are addressing the primary problem, which is this functional imbalance in the brain. We also believe that in educating the child in this way we may be altering gene expression and helping to stimulate neuroplasticity, or the building of functional connections in the brain that will create permanent, long term, functional, and actual physical changes in the brain of these children.
Commitment: What are some signs that a child may have a left brain delay?
Dr. Melillo: The earliest signs usually involve motor milestone development. It has been shown through some recent studies that many of the earliest signs of autism or Aspergers is that they may not roll over at three to five months as they should. They may have difficulty sitting up and balancing themselves. They may crawl in an unusual way or not crawl at all. They are often either delayed in walking or they may start walking too early without really crawling.
Another early sign revolves around this nonverbal communication I mentioned earlier. Nonverbal communication starts first between the mother and child and this can be seen as early as one to three months. Many mothers instinctively can tell that this communication is not proceeding, as it should.
We also see that the child doesn’t develop joint attention; nonverbal communication that allows the child and mother to know what each other is thinking.
Commitment: What are some signs a child might have a right brain delay?
Dr. Melillo: The right brain develops primarily in the womb for the first two to three years. Anything that affects the development of these early milestones usually will have more impact on right brain development.
The right brain is responsible for gross motor, big muscles development, posture, balance, and spatial awareness.
If a child is not moving enough, or moving in the proper way, this will have tremendous impact on right hemisphere development. A child needs to physically interact with their environment in an increasing way as they develop. This increasing level and complexity of environmental stimulation is what activates the genes that will produce functional connections and literally build and establish the networks in the brain.
I believe that since the development of the personal computer we have seen an increasing level of sedentary behavior at younger and younger ages and this is the number one factor that is affecting our children and the parents of these children.
Boys have larger right frontal lobes naturally. This is what distinguishes a male from a female brain. This is established in the womb and in the first couple of years of life. Boys are more dependent on this early physical activity than girls are. Boys are also more susceptible to negative environmental factors. ADHD, Autism and Aspergers are much more prevalent in boys and they all involve delayed development of the right side of the brain, especially the frontal lobe.
Commitment: What are some exercises and sensory-motor exercises that parents can do right at home that will help correct their child's brain imbalance?
Dr. Melillo: These activities should really be tailored to the child’s specific needs. I am basically against any generic program of any kind. All activities must be individually chosen after some form of functional assessment.
One of the things in general is to get the child off the couch and get them away from TV, computers, and video games and get them outside playing, socializing and interacting with their environment as much as possible.
Recent studies have shown that twenty percent of four year olds in the US are obese. The only way a four year old becomes obese is from inactivity. If they are not moving their bodies they are not interacting with their environment, they are not stimulating these genes that build connections and they are not stimulating certain networks on the right or left side of the brain to grow and mature. This leads to imbalances and all of the problems associated with them.
We suggest to our parents that a child who is under seven should have almost no computer time whatsoever. Small children under two should watch almost no TV and that all other children should not get more then an hour and a half screen time combined daily.
For more specific exercises they should read my book Disconnected Kids and follow the directions to design a program specific for their child’s needs.
Commitment: What foods do you recommend children with these brain delays eat and avoid? Are there certain foods that speed recovery, and others that make the brain even more imbalanced?
Dr. Melillo: This again is a very difficult question to answer because each child has specific needs. We know the basics but when it comes to these children there are many issues that need to be considered.
One thing I don’t agree with is some sort of generic diet for all kids, like eliminating casein and gluten for everyone. When it comes to diet, it is very important for parents to understand that most of the dietary and nutritional deficiencies that we see in these children is actually secondary to the neurological imbalance in the brain.
Therefore to address these problems it must be done with some sort of neurological program that addresses the imbalance in the brain. If you do not do that first then you are only managing these issues and this is something that you will always have to do because you will never actually correct the problem.
Let me explain this further because this is such an important point; parents are spending thousands of dollars on supplements and diets without really understanding why the child has these issues. Most of the dietary and nutritional issues revolve around two basic problems. First is an imbalance and dysregulation in their immune system. Second is a problem with development and regulation of normal gut function and digestion. Both of these issues in most cases are directly related to a functional imbalance in the brain.
What most people don’t realize is that the brain controls and regulates the immune response. The left hemisphere increases the sensitivity of antibodies and the activation of the immune response. The right hemisphere reduces the sensitivity of the antibodies and it helps to stop the immune response so we don’t start attacking our own body.
If the child has a right hemisphere delay and weakness, then we would expect that child to have an immune system that is overly sensitive to antigens, so it develops sensitivities too easily to foods and other substances. We would also expect the child to have an overactive immune response that can’t be stopped, so we see autoimmune mediated inflammation that can affect the body and the brain. This is what we see routinely with these children. They have chronic inflammation, which may even cause their brain and head to be bigger than normal and they have multiple food and chemical sensitivities.
The second major factor that also starts in the brain, is the problem with digestion. These children have an immature gut so they produce less secretions, digestive enzymes and acid in their stomach and intestines. They also have low muscle tone and weak contractions of their digestive muscles. These two things lead to poor digestion and constipation, as well as chronic bacterial or yeast problems.
We also see that there is reduced blood flow to the gut that leads to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals (especially B12, and folic acid.) This reduced blood flow also leads to a breakdown of the stomach lining which can cause inflammation of the gut and what we call “leaky gut”.
Normally a healthy stomach lining only allows small completely digested molecules to get through and to be absorbed by bloodstream. When the stomach lining becomes weakened and inflamed it can let larger molecules through (especially proteins from food that have not been fully digested) because of diminished production of acid and enzymes.
These undigested protein molecules from food like dairy and wheat can now get through the stomach and intestine lining where they come in contact with an over sensitive and overactive immune system. This causes an immune reaction that can cause inflammation of the body and brain affecting the child’s brain development and function.
The important point here is that all of this is secondary to the imbalance in the brain. If you don’t address the primary problem you will never completely eliminate these food sensitivities and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. When you address the brain, many times the child can then go back to a normal diet and may not need sophisticated vitamins.
The other issue in regard to food is that these children are often very picky eaters. This is not purely a coincidence, and this is also cause by the brain. What most parents don’t realize is that many of these children have a reduced or completely absent sense of smell. They do not smell or taste food normally so they choose food by texture or appearance. I describe in the book how a parent can test and stimulate the sense of smell in their child and this is critical.
Commitment: What vitamins and other supplements do you recommend taking?
Dr. Melillo: The vitamins that a child takes should really depend on measuring what that child specifically needs. There is no one size fits all vitamin. Each child has its own unique biochemistry that requires an individualized vitamin, mineral and amino acid supplement.
In our centers we recommend to parents that they have some functional biochemical tests done. These are unusually inexpensive tests that can specifically identify that child’s deficiencies. The parent can then have a customized vitamin, mineral and amino acid supplement formulated.
However, there are some basic staples that appear to be needed in all these kids. Vitamin D, Omega 3 and antioxidants are something that almost all of these children require.
The problem is that most of these children ate picky eaters and getting supplements that they will take is hard. We are actually developing vitamin, mineral and other supplements that are pleasant tasting in liquid or gel form.that will address many of these basic common deficiencies. We hope to start testing those sometime this year.
Commitment: How important is physical movement to the healing of the brain?
Dr. Melillo: I think I addressed this in a previous question, however it is impossible to overemphasize this point. Physical activity is the single most important factor to developing a normal well-balanced brain and nervous system.
The last point I would like to make is that I think it is important for parents to understand why this is happening to their child.
I believe that children who have these disorders have them because they are actually gifted children. I believe they start out having a certain area or hemisphere of the brain that is a little stronger than most. They are already a little unbalanced to begin with. I also believe that because of a combination of environment al factors that we don’t understand, the imbalance in the brain becomes too severe and it causes this functional disconnection and this disability.
The thing that motivates me here is not just that we are losing more and more children each year to these disorders with no end in sight, but that we are losing our best and our brightest.
However it is important for parents to have hope that there is help and that these children may not be lost forever. This message of hope for parents is the most important one.
To purchase Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders click here.