by Julie Genser
What autism spectrum disorders and environmental illness have in common
Over the years, through my participation in online discussion groups for mercury chelation, mold illness, chemical sensitivity, and lyme disease, I have come to view autism spectrum disorders as part of the overall genre of environmental illness. One of main differences between an autistic child and a poisoned adult is that children are poisoned before their brains are fully developed, resulting in greater, and different, neurological impairments. Some of the possible similarities between autistic children and poisoned adults include: digestive dysbiosis, extensive food allergies and intolerances, impaired social abilities, increased anxiety, chemical sensitivities, mold sensitivity, high levels of heavy metals (which can show up as low or non-existent on a hair test since the child/adult is unable to excrete heavy metals and thus holds onto large stores of them in the body and brain), tick-borne infections, sensory issues, genetic mutations in the methylation cycle, and many others. It’s no coincidence that some of the pre-eminent physicians treating autistic children – Dietrich Klinghardt, M.D., Amy Yasko, M.D., for example – also treat adults with lyme disease, heavy metal poisoning, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chemical sensitivity. It’s no coincidence that many of the renowned autism specialists must be proficient in heavy metal chelation, gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) rotation diets, sauna therapy, and other modalities that are simultaneously being used by physicians specializing in environmental illness such as William J. Rea, M.D., and Allan D. Lieberman, M.D. So it makes sense to me that environmentally ill adults pursuing brain retraining programs in their treatment approach, like myself, should look to autism brain therapies to see how we can apply similar exercises to our own recovery programs.
Multi-Sensory Brain Therapy
Today I’ll be looking at a program designed by neuroscientist Claudie Gordon-Pomares called Multi-Sensory Brain Therapy, formerly known as M.A.P.S., or Monitored Multi-cortical Activities for Additional Pathways and Synapses, that uses sensory rich games and exercises to initiate neural self-repair, creating real chemical and anatomical changes in the brain. Research shows that enhanced sensory stimulation increases resilience to toxins, stress, and aging. Their program is said to be helpful for a wide range of anxiety, autism spectrum, behavior, cognitive, developmental, eating, mood, movement and personality disorders. Chemical sensitivity is not listed and having reviewed their website in depth, I do not feel the program is well suited for environmentally ill adults, however there are certainly some key concepts we can take away and benefit from.
The basic premise
Their website explains that “the Multi-Sensory Therapy is a way to enrich the sensory environment of a person that makes the brain want to grow and repair itself in the process.” What I find interesting about this brain plasticity based program, is that it does not work to repair dysfunctional parts of the brain, as the Gupta Amygdala Retraining™ Program and Dynamic Neural Retraining System™ do. Instead, the intention is to activate nearby healthy neuronal networks, which will be become strengthened by the exercises and grow into the damaged areas. Their theory is that focusing on the dysfunctional part of the brain is too stressful, and that the dysfunctional parts will automatically take over the healthy pathways when they are created in close vicinity to the damage site. Fascinating, right? When the impaired brain function has healed enough through this indirect process, games are then used to directly stimulate these areas. In summary, you have two sessions a day that last 5-10 minutes each. These sessions target brain functions and prompt growth in these areas. As more and more brain functions get repaired, the brain gets progressively healthier.
A sample exercise from the program:
This game is designed to stimulate primarily two touch receptors at the end of each finger: cold and warm. We present an ice cube to each finger, then a warm spoon to the tip of each finger. The idea is to present strong, easily identifiable signals to a part of the body that is the furthest away from the brain. Commonly, the fingertip contrast is accompanied by its close cousin “toe contrast”. These games allow the brain to develop a clearer map of the fingers, one by one, which should help it develop distinct motion and separation of movement between each finger. This protocol takes about a minute and you’re done. Your worksheets will typically include five or six of these types of activities.”
Another interesting feature of the program is that it requires that the brain be left alone, so that it can create new neuronal networks with little distraction or stress. After the exercises you are supposed to lay down and rest your brain for 3-5 hours. From the website: “A stress and interference free environment is to the mending brain what the cast is to the fractured leg or what the band-aid is to the paper cut.” They also advise not to combine this program with other programs, to keep stress to a minimum and allow the brain space to self-heal. The exercises must be done 7 days a week without fail, and if missed, you will lose valuable ground. So basically, you are finding a balance between doing pleasurable yet challenging tasks that prompt the brain to grow, tempered with enough down-time to allow for that growth to happen.
Why it’s not ideal for environmentally ill adults
There are three main components of the program that would make it difficult, if not counterproductive, for use by environmentally ill adults:
• Is best administered by another adult
• Includes smelling essential oils every 2 hours
• Requires equipment and props
The program involves introducing new sensory exercises every day that require the administration of another person. In the case of autistic children, one of the parents can easily take on that role. With environmentally ill adults, in many cases the person must live a life of isolation even if in a relationship. More than likely, if the person is in a committed relationship or marriage, the partner is working hard earning a living as the sole breadwinner. The one case that might be well adapted for this program is a caretaker situation; if someone with environmental illness has a caretaker or if their spouse is filling the role of caretaker, they could conceivably add some of the sensory exercises into the daily routine.
However, the smelling of essential oils every 2 hours (to increase serotonin and dopamine production) could very well be a deal breaker. First off, the dysfunctional part of the brain for someone with chemical sensitivity involves the sense of smell. So if the object of the program is to activate healthy neurons and avoid the damage site, focusing on the sense of smell might go against the main premise of the program. In addition, many chemically sensitive people cannot tolerate essential oils at all. Some can, and so the program might be a possibility for them. Others might be able to substitute sliced oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and other fruits, vegetables and flowers with pungent scents to satisfy this element of the program.
The third feature of the program that might present challenges to the chemically sensitive are the use of props: beads, art prints, fake fruit, a piggy bank, a blindfold, sponges, jigsaw puzzles, etc. Depending on one’s level of sensitivity, acquiring these things might require long off-gassing periods. This might add a level of difficulty that some are not willing to take on.
Although these three cornerstones of the program proved to be too big of an obstacle for myself (as well as the price), I did find many elements of their research and treatment approach to be worth looking at. I recap them below.
Optimizing levels of dopamine and serotonin before brain exercises
Claudie explains on the website how healthy neurons actually don’t touch each other, but communicate with each other via electrical charges that pass across synapses. In order for the electrical charges to function optimally, certain neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and serotonin – must be present in adequate levels. An important part of their program is to stimulate the brain to keep serotonin and dopamine levels up during exercises, so the messages are being transported clearly and the brain can function at its best.
Every two hours, they aim to increase dopamine through the smelling of essential oil, and using eye movement – tracking the eyes from left to right by looking at art calendars with no other expectation than visual pleasure. Dopamine is involved in mood, motivation, memory, pleasure, and fine motor skills.
Healthy levels of serotonin help us translate things in our environment properly. If we have low levels of serotonin, we might interpret something neutral in our environment as harmful to us. Claudie says that some people with neurological challenges have difficulty receiving touch because of a poor serotonin function. To elevate serotonin, they say you need gentle touch, with a very light texture, introduced slowly starting with the fingertips and progressing down the body at a pace determined by the person being touched – no deep tissue massage, which the brain might interpret as stressful. So each day you are to be lightly stroked on the skin and body. You can also boost serotonin by looking at beautiful art, as with dopamine. Serotonin can affect digestion, sleeping patterns, stress levels, and social awareness.
Recipe for success
In order for the program to work, the exercises need to provide pleasure, novelty, and repetition. These are also the concepts that some of the computer based brain retraining programs are built on, such as Lumosity and Fit Brains. (I will review them in an upcoming post.)
One aspect of the program is to activate the brain’s natural reward system, which is controlled mainly by dopamine, by stimulating the healthy area of brain with pleasurable activities.
The program also introduces new experiences – the exercises themselves offer new ways of combining the senses, such as associating a smell or sound with letters or balancing on one foot with a blindfold on with your arms out in a “zombie” position. The exercises themselves are also switched out for new ones every two weeks, to keep the brain interested and engaged.
The exercises must be done twice a day; no more, no less.
Another important component is to eliminate interferences and stress while doing the program.
After reading the Multi-Sensory Therapy website, I was motivated to incorporate the following into my own recovery program:
• New experiences – going to new places, talking to new people. I feel this is especially important for those isolated both socially and sensorily by environmental illness for years;
• Getting light massage – raises serotonin and oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone;
• Listening to music, especially non-lyric, symphonic classical music, once a day to help regulate serotonin and dopamine functions;
• Listening to nature – birdsong, crickets, frogs, the wind;
• Encouraging the natural tracking of my eyes from left to right by spending more time in the field outside my home to watch the animals and plants do their thing, and making it a practice to look at beautiful things: photography, art, clothing, textiles, and other visual arts;
• Taking walks in nature and getting other types of aerobic exercise (like using my rebounder!) to elevate my heart rate for 20 minutes each day, to help stimulate brain growth;
• Resting my brain by watching mindless shows via my computer, and allowing myself to take rests during the day and long naps when needed;
• Signing up for Lumosity’s brain retraining program which is based on the same pleasure/novelty/repetition recipe. (Yes, it goes against the rule not to do another program, but since I’m not actually doing the MAPS program, I thought it’d be okay.)
Does this inspire you to incorporate any new experiences into your life? Please share below in the comments and let me know what things you are already instinctively doing that are in alignment with some of the concepts shared above, and what new activities you are now motivated to try.
Special thanks to Claudie Gordon-Pomares and her team for all the research that has gone into their program and their generous sharing via their website of all the principles.
Please note: This essay is based on information shared publicly on their website about the program, and is not based on any personal experience with the program. Since the time I reviewed their website in depth, they have introduced a new website which might not include some of the information shared above. In addition, their program may have been modified since the time of my review.