'Decade of the Brain' yields answers for learning disabled, autism, others

One in five students goes to school knowing it’s another day to feel stupid in front of friends and peers. They are bright, study hard and some even get extra help, but they labor at a frustrating and sometimes losing game.

Specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dyscalculia (reading and math), attention deficit disorder, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, autism and other dysfunctions with a neurological cause, have increased at an epidemic rate over the past dozen years. Northwestern University found the number of attention deficit disorder diagnoses rose from 6.2 million to 10.4 million from 2000 to 2010 in the U.S., a 67 percent increase. In 2007 one in 110 births resulted in a child with autism; now it’s one in 50.

These are some of the daunting numbers of willing and intelligent kids not fully functioning in the world. The cost in time, money and human potential is beyond measure.

So much has been discovered recently about neuroplasticity— the brain’s ability to change and develop — that science has named this the Decade of the Brain. These recent advances offer an approach for neurologically involved students that makes learning efficient and achievable for the first time in a child’s life. The cause of the dysfunctions, not just the symptoms, are addressed, giving consistent results that change lives.

Clark County is fortunate to claim two centers that offer programs that use groundbreaking methods based on these discoveries. Both Permanent Learning Solutions in Overton and Brain Balance Achievement Center in Henderson use an intervention process that is documented and effective. Since these programs are relatively new, only 54 Brain Balance Centers and 15 centers like Permanent Learning Solutions exist in the United States. In many areas parents who want this help for their child must drive long distances or temporarily relocate.

If you were to observe a session in progress at either center, what you would not see is academic tutoring. First, a student must qualify for a program based on results during initial assessment that will identify weaknesses in brain processes so important to learning. Perhaps he has difficulty with focus, visual memory, tracking, direction, position in space, size and shape, visual figure-ground or auditory memory, to name a few.

We know that children with certain learning and behavior dysfunctions have a disconnection between hemispheres of the brain. It is this disconnection that scrambles the synchronicity and communication between hemispheres, which shows up as processing weaknesses. Selected techniques and exercises stimulate the brain’s ability to change physically and chemically (neuroplasticity) and encourage the two hemispheres to work in harmony.

Students at Permanent Learning Solutions in session with KaeLyne Pendleton, owner and director, say that they want to come because right away they feel themselves getting better at learning. One of many specialized exercises is cross-pattern marching, forward and backward, where the opposite arm and leg are raised and lowered simultaneously. This activity, when selected arm movements are added, helps coordinate both sides of the body and brain, crossing the midline and improving both reading decoding and comprehension. Kids also love jumping jacks, jump rope, ball toss and many other fun activities always prescribed with the brain in mind.

During the final phase of relearning, when a student who once had reading difficulties reads a book, he does so in an extraordinary way. He places the book on a template with eight lines crisscrossed on it like pizza slices. At first he would position the book on the horizontal axis as usual. After a few minutes of reading aloud, Pendleton will tell him it’s time to move the book to the next line up so it is at a 45 degree angle.

Next he must move the book to the 90-degree position. They proceed with the student reading in all eight positions, including upside down and 270 degrees, until the book once again arrives at its normal horizontal position. In each position Pendleton asks comprehension questions, which the student answers using new vocabulary and metaphor.

A Brain Balance session also looks a little like physical education with kids in motion. They do what kids do best, have fun while learning. All the while they improve synchronicity and unscramble and strengthen weak processing. To improve coordination, rhythm and timing, they might run in place, or jump on a trampoline on a marked X, or jump rope.

The less aerobic pencil push-up improves visual focus and clarity. The instructor holds a pencil 18 inches in front of the nose, with the child reporting he is seeing only one pencil. If he sees two, the pencil is moved farther away until one only is seen. Slowly the pencil is brought closer to the nose until only one pencil is seen.

Brain Balance also might prescribe activities for proprioceptive integration, proper breathing, joint mobility and flexibility, sensory deficit restoration, slow and fast tracking, therapeutic use of sound and light, color and sound relationship, or others. The variety of activities improves a variety of processing difficulties and keeps kids interested. In addition to sensory-motor and neuroacademic practices, Brain Balance addresses “brain fuel” nutrition for everyone, especially fussy eaters and those with food sensitivities.

Dr. Susan DeVito, owner and director of Brain Balance in Henderson, talks excitedly about one of its many successes. A 10-year-old fourth-grader began at first-grade level in both reading and math but six months into the program was tested at third grade in both skills while his time in special education classes was cut in half.

Pendleton reports that one of her recent graduates, a 19-year-old who came to her afraid she couldn’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to join the military. After completing the program, her skills improved and she changed her career plan. Now she is headed to college for a double major in agricultural business and business management — what she really wanted but didn’t have confidence to pursue.

Tuition for these programs is not expensive when one considers gaining a young person’s true potential. But the cost discourages some. This writer, with 30 years’ experience teaching students with specific learning and autism/Asperger’s disabilities, has turned her passion and commitment into a nonprofit organizaton that will provide tuition help for students unable to afford it.

Gateway Opportunities for Exceptional Learning was incorporated in December and recently applied for its tax-exempt status. The goal is to award its first tuition scholarship by late 2013. Gateway envisions parents empowered to repair their child’s neurological disabilities no matter their income. This organization is a work in progress because the gate is open for our young people to be fully involved in developing their talents and achieving their dreams.