When a child receives a diagnosis of ADD, ADHD, Tourette’s, Asperger’s syndrome, autism — or even dyslexia or learning disabilities — the best way to proceed is far from obvious, even for the supposed experts. Parents may take their children to psychologists who ultimately admit that the child is beyond their expertise. They may go through rounds of medications, some of which help, but only sort of.
Jody Hayworth’s eight-year-old son Kenny was diagnosed with Tourette’s at age five. When she took him to a neurologist, he told her that Kenny was genetically predisposed to Tourette’s, and there was nothing she could do to help him.
But Hayworth — a stay-at-home mom who lives in Basking Ridge with her husband, a police detective, and three other sons — was not about to give up. “Some moms will hide and shrink away because they are upset,” she says. “I was the opposite. I wanted to talk to everybody.” She did just that until a friend gave her a copy of Robert Melillo’s book “Disconnected Kids.”
The book explores functional disconnection syndrome, an umbrella term that brings together many related diagnoses. It is characterized by a disconnect between the two sides of the brain that is caused when one side develops more quickly than the other. Usually these kids are weaker on the right side of their brains.
In the book Melillo describes these children as feeling disconnected from their bodies and their senses. “They have no sense of self in space or feeling grounded,” says Vincent Kiechlin, a chiropractic neurologist who trained with Melillo and is now the director of the new Brain Balance Achievement Center at 21 Route 31 North in Pennington, part of a franchise started by Melillo about five years ago. “They appear clumsy and uncoordinated and have odd muscle tone. They may appear to be gazing into space with one eye, and one lacks normal movement.”
When they are in a situation where they must use multiple senses at the same time, these kids can become overwhelmed. Since two senses are in constant use — feeling gravity and seeing — any extra touch sensation may just be too much; for example, they may refuse to wear shirts with a collar tag. “Their brains are not balanced, so it is difficult for them to inhabit their environments,” says Kiechlin. To protect themselves, he adds, they often withdraw and become antisocial.
Melillo’s book offers instructions to the parents of these kids on how to identify their left or right-brain deficiencies as well as exercises to retrain their brains through sensory-motor and cognitive stimulation — to the weaker side only.
Melillo will appear at three information sessions to give a presentation about a non-medical approach to working with children with autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, Tourette’s, ADD, or ADHD. The sessions take place Monday, October 3, and Wednesday, October 5, 7 to 9 p.m., both at the Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square; and Thursday, October 6, 7:30 to 9 p.m., Barnes & Noble MarketFair, Route 1. Reservations are requested by Friday, September 30. See details at end.
Once she started reading Melillo’s book, Hayworth was intrigued. Her son, Kenny, first started having symptoms of Tourette’s at age three: he will randomly roll his eyes or blink and at the same time make a little humming sound. Kids with Tourette’s always have some kind of motor movement, or tic, accompanied by a vocal component, says Hayworth. The version of Tourette’s characterized by screaming and shouting curse words, although a stereotype in the public consciousness, afflicts only 10 to 15 percent of people with Tourette’s.
After reading Melillo’s book, Hayworth tried out some of the exercises with her son to see whether she might reduce his Tourette’s symptoms. But her secret prayer was that one of the Brain Balance Achievement Centers would open in New Jersey. Her prayers were answered when Kiechlin opened a center in May in Pennington.
Kiechlin first met Melillo in 2000 when he was taking Melillo’s class at the Carrick Institute of Graduate Studies in Hartford, Connecticut, a program to certify chiropractors and others in clinical neurology. Melillo, he learned, had used his knowledge of the brain’s evolutionary development to create a brain-balancing program for his ADHD son. That program became the basis of the techniques used at Brain Balance Centers. “He had his own practice in Long Island, kept perfecting it, and it grew to the point where he couldn’t see additional people,” says Kiechlin. “He started to spread his information through the profession, and then he started to franchise it.”
It was one of Kiechlin’s chiropractic patients who encouraged him to open the center. The patient’s son had gone through Melillo’s program at a Brain Balance Achievement Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and he suggested that Kiechlin explore the possibility of opening a center himself. Remembering his enthusiasm for Melillo’s methods, Kiechlin moved ahead.
The one-side-of-the-brain-weaker-than-the-other discrepancy is often visible across many different brain functions. The children’s gross and fine motor coordination, balance, and even their hearing, vision, and sense of smell may be different on their right and left sides. In fact, adds Kiechlin, true dyslexia is associated with a left-brain problem in which people are unable to hear the sounds of the letters correctly.
Children whose right brain is weaker may have difficulty socializing. The right brain mediates nonverbal communication, and these children miss the nonverbal cues that are key to effective socializing.
For people to function effectively in the world, both sides of their brains need to work in cooperation. To understand both “big picture” concepts and their underlying detail requires both the right side of the frontal lobe, which gets the broad idea, and the left, which absorbs the nitty gritty. “To get an accurate picture, you need both sides to synchronize,” says Kiechlin. Even heart function requires cooperation, with one side of the brain controlling rate and the other rhythm; when these are not in balance, he says, a person may experience ventrical fibrillation or atrial arrhythmia — without any pathology of the heart or vascular or other disease.
When Hayworth did not get advice from her neurologist on how to help her son, she was very concerned about what her son’s Tourette’s might do to his self-esteem. She recalls a serious talk with him about his Tourette’s in first grade when he was teased once and got very upset. “Kenny knows what he has. It’s no secret,” she says. “I want to make him proud of who he is and empower him because there are things we can do to help him.”
Hayworth says she really likes the Brain Balance Center’s approach. “They’re trying to get the right and left hemispheres of the brain to be more balanced,” she explains. “Typically one side will be over and one under-stimulated. They will bring the two sides into balance, and then you should see improvement in whatever symptoms the child is experiencing.”
Kenny was the first enrollee at the Pennington center and the first to graduate from its 12-week, three-hour-a-week program.
At the beginning of the program, children are given a four-hour assessment. The first two hours comprise a motor and sensory evaluation, checking coordination, balance, eye movements, rhythm, and strength and tone. The evaluation assesses in a very detailed way whether one side of a child’s brain is stronger than the other.
The second two hours are an academic evaluation by a special education teacher, using the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test to grade a child for 15 different right and left-brain skills. “Children with a weakness on the right side would work on cognitive skills that stimulate the right brain,” says Kiechlin. Although teachers work with the children on academic skills, Kiechlin emphasizes that “this is not tutoring.”
Hayworth couldn’t help comparing this thorough evaluation to the short look-see by the neurologist. “They take five minutes with a flashlight looking at his eyes, they have him draw or write his name, and they throw a ball to him and try to get him to tic,” she says.
According to Kenny’s evaluation, his right side needed extra stimulation. “So his exercise program was tailored only to his test scores,” says Hayworth. “It was tailor made just for him. I love that it’s specific, not just generic.”
What distinguishes a Brain Balance Achievement Center from other learning centers is its approach to balancing the brain, by stimulating the weak side only. “Even with a kid who seems weak on both sides, there’s always one side that is weaker,” says Kiechlin, adding that the faster side may even be slowing down as it tries to synchronize with the slower side.
Following the evaluation, the program’s two components parallel the evaluation. To stimulate motor and sensory weaknesses, children spend a half hour during each visit (three times a week) working through myriad activities arrayed in a medium-sized room. Each activity is individualized to focus on a specific weakness. The children watch visual patterns going across a computer screen, practice distinguishing between different smells (on their weak side only), wear glasses with colored frames that stimulate the weak side through choice of colors, go across monkey bars, jump to either side of a balance beam, twirl in a chair, do rhythm work with a metronome, and other activities.
To address cognitive issues, children work on standard language exercises, but only for the purpose of stimulating the weak side of the brain. Because many children with functional disconnection syndrome have a right brain weakness, a teacher might work with them, for example, on making inferences and getting the main idea of a story, or on picturing geometric shapes and estimation. The goal is for the weak side to catch up with the strong side so that the two can resync — not, as with standard tutoring, to improve all academic skills.
All the activities are ranked according to age or grade. If a sixth grader comes in with the balance capability of a fourth grader, the goal is to get him up to grade level or beyond. For fitness the center uses the gradings and core exercises established by the Presidential Council on Fitness.
Another component of the program is five visits with a nutritionist. “We make sure they are getting enough nutrients to grow new brain tracks,” says Kiechlin. “Exercising the brain makes it grow new connections. It is the basis of all learning; whether you learn how to throw a curve ball or learn that 2+2 = 4, the brain does it in the same way, by developing new connections to perform that skill.”
As Kenny made his way through the program, Hayworth would get reports on his progress every couple of weeks. By the end, he had gone up in most things, although in some more than others. She says he still has trouble with dichotic listening, where different words are spoken into each ear through headphones, and he has to determine which word was spoken into his left ear (which stimulates the right side of his brain).
Kenny enjoyed the whole process, says Hayworth. He loved the exercises. Even the academics, which he was less enthusiastic about to start with, were fun because of the staff members who make the kids feel like they are buddies. “Everybody is very loving and nourishing, and they get down to the level of the kids,” says Hayworth. “They are teachers but also a friend. They make the children feel very comfortable, and the kids can just be who they are. They accept children from where they are and know every child can make wonderful progress.”
For Kenny, the results have been spectacular. First of all, his tics have decreased in frequency. “The tics come and go,” says Hayworth. “He still has a little bit of eye movement, and sometimes we hear a small vocal, but it’s much less than it was, and anything that is less than it was is a gift.” Also his posture and muscle tone have improved, as have his balance, coordination, and rhythm. He is singing and clapping to music on beat.
In terms of academics, he had finished first grade in the second-to-lowest reading group and was barely reading, but by the end of the summer he tackled “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which is about at a fourth-grade reading level. Even his handwriting has gotten better, reports his mother, and he is much more confident.
From the nutritionist, Hayworth learned that Kenny was deficient in the B vitamins and needed extra folic acid, and he is now taking a supplement.
“It is a full, complete program,” says Hayworth, admitting she is not sure which aspect of the program helped Kenny the most. “I like to think they all worked in harmony together,” she says.
Kenny is not the only success story of the center, and Kiechlin shares some others. One boy, 11, who had never ridden a bike, was sensitive to touch, light, and sound; and had socialization problems and coordination and balance difficulties. “Now he is riding a bike, and we are able to touch him — to hold his hand or to put a piece of equipment on — without him cowering, squirming, or trying to get away from us,” says Kiechlin, who adds that the boy’s sensitivity was reduced by balancing his brain, not through any sensory processing therapy. Socially the boy is not only talking more, but is social to the degree that people outside the are asking his parents, “What are you doing that’s different?”
The father of another boy, 8, who was extremely hyperactive and had tremendous behavior issues, almost didn’t take him to center. Kiechlin’s staff determined that part of the reason the child wouldn’t cooperate was because he wasn’t able to see the big picture. After starting his training in the center, his parents have noticed that he is getting more social, catching nonverbal clues, and starting to talk and answer questions — things he never did before.
Another child, typical of many who come to Brain Balance Achievement Centers, has extreme difficulty reading. After extensive tests of reading and listening skills, Kiechlin’s team discovered, using technology that measures eye movements during reading, that the boy’s eyes kept moving backward over what he had just read. “He hates to do homework,” says Kiechlin, adding, “I wonder why?” The machine also revealed that his eyes were not in synch with one another. To help correct these issues, he is working at home on a computerized reading program.
The charge for the 12-week program is $6,000. According to a Harvard study, says Kiechlin, the average family of a child with functional disconnect syndrome spends about $10,000 a year on the child, between different therapy and medication copays.
Kiechlin has 10 to 12 staff members, some full-time and some part-time. So far the center has about 25 students.
Kiechlin grew up in Matawan. His father was an accountant. The course of Kiechlin’s life was changed by a motor vehicle accident he suffered at age 18. A couple of years later, when he was a premed student at St. Peter’s College, majoring in biology, and still experiencing problems with his back from the accident, he happened to meet up with a chiropractor at a school health fair. The chiropractor helped him with his back pain and, as a result, Kiechlin himself decided to go to the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic, where he graduated in 1988.
A later life experience sent him back to the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies in Hartford — this time to complete the institute’s chiropractic neurology program. “My son was born with a club foot, and I remember looking at his foot and thinking, ‘That’s a neurological problem for sure,’” says Kiechlin. Whereas the orthopedist saw it as only a foot problem, he thought the cause was too much contraction in his son’s calf. To learn more, Kiechlin became board-certified in 2003 in chiropractic neurology, which focuses on repairing imbalances that result in brain and nervous system dysfunction.
Kiechlin and his wife, Susan, who works part-time as an office assistant at St. Mary’s Church in Colts Neck, have four children. He maintains a chiropractic neurology practice in Princeton and Bernardsville; he does not practice chiropractic neurology at the Brain Balance Achievement Center, which is a supplemental learning center.
As for the new center, Kiechlin says: “I am very pleased with the results we are getting. Everybody has improved in some area.”
For Hayworth, the center is an answer to a dream. She says, “Sometimes moms don’t know what to do, and this offers hope.”
Information Sessions, Brain Balance, Monday and Wednesday, October 3 and 5, 7 to 9 p.m., Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square, Princeton; and Thursday, October 6, 7:30 to 9 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Route 1, West Windsor. Presentation about a non-medical approach to working with children with autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, Tourettes, ADD, or ADHD by Dr. Robert Melillo, the director of Brain Balance Achievement Centers. Register by Friday, September 30, via E-mail: email@example.com, and specify which date and number of people will attend. 609-737-1310 or www.brainbalancecenters.com.
Also, Information Session, Brain Balance, 21 Route 31 North, Suite A2, Pennington. Wednesday, October 12, 7 to 8 p.m. Presentation by Dr. Vincent Kiechlin. The first 20 people to register receive a free book by Dr. Robert Melillo, the director of Brain Balance Achievement Centers. Free. 609-737-1310 or www.brainbalancecenters.com.