Spectrum Theory

Inside autism spectrum disorders

Brainwave Neurofeedback for Autism: Can It Help?

Helping children to control their own brainwaves may help autism symptoms

Brainwaves being monitored with EEG machine
Autism is a condition that effects 1 in 88 children according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. Treatments for autism remain very limited with many families attempting to try to improve symptoms based on changes in diet, supplements, or other interventions.

What is neurofeedback ?

Several people had recently mentioned the benefits their children had experienced from neurofeedback. Neurofeedback involves being monitored by a machine that monitors your brainwave activities through an electroencephalographic (EEG) machine. These brainwaves can be presented on a computer screen by either lines or graphs, or by simple objects such as a ball. As the child uses neurofeedback, and gets closer to having the “normal” brainwave patterns, they will notice the ball or lines on the screen change. This is essentially a way of teaching a child how to self-regulate their own brainwaves.

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As with any activity, practice is essential to improving performance. Very few side effects to neurofeedback have been identified, and in large part no serious concerns have been seen. Some children have noted headaches and muscular tension.

Does it work for autism?

Reports from caregivers of people with autism suggest people have witnessed improvements in a variety of areas including speech and irritability. A few scientific reports have highlighted that a demonstrated increase in social interaction may be seen in child with autism following treatment. One study suggested that parents who noticed an improvement continued to see the benefits for at least a year after neurofeedback. We know from other studies that the brainwaves of children with autism may well be different in many ways to the brainwaves of their non-autistic peers.

Although neurofeedback looks promising as one option for treating some of the symptoms of autism, looking through the scientific literature, it appears that there have been only a very limited number of small studies, with widely varying methods. Some researchers have suggested that the findings supporting the use of neurofeedback in ASD are inconclusive. I think, as several others have commented, that this is likely to be as a result of a lack of research studies into this interesting area.

The story of neurofeedback and another childhood condition, attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is different. Neurofeedback has been shown to help children with ADHD by improving hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Interestingly, we know that many children with autism may also have these symptoms. It has been suggested that 1 in 3 children with autism may also have ADHD.

Future directions

It is clear that we need further research in this area, as we need to explore how the brainwaves of children with autism may be different, and then determine if neurofeedback is an intervention that we should be using more frequently. 

 

Consider supporting the Lurie Center for Autism at the Massachusetts General Hospital – click here massgeneral.org

Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D., is a resident child psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School. He is an APA Leadership Fellow.

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