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Center aims to aid those with autism spectrum disorders

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Posted at 10:35 PM, Nov 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-15 00:37:58-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Somewhere in between breakfast and school, Katharine Adams has managed to add to her daughters’ hectic morning routine with 30 minutes of exercises.

“Three times a day, morning, afternoon and night,” Adams said.

For the last four months, the mother of three has been trying the regimen with her 7-year-old daughter Sofia, who has autism and severe ADHD.

“At first, she was really confrontational, really argumentative,” Adams said. “Now, she doesn't argue as much. If she steps out of line, she, on her own, will come up to me and apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, Mommy. I was being rude.’ Never would have done that before. Never.”

The daily drills of push ups and jumps are the homework prescribed by the staff at Brain Balance in South Jordan, where Adams now takes Sofia and her eldest, Sage, every week.

The facility is the second in Utah and part of 75 across the country. They were all built on the research by Dr. Robert Melillo, a chiropractic neurologist, who has been studying the causes of autism spectrum disorder and a possible way to fix it.

“There’s no damage or injury, but there’s a problem with the way their brain is developing, so that the two sides of the brain aren’t working together in a synchronized way,” Melillo said.

FOX 13 News caught up with Dr. Melillo at the grand opening of the South Jordan center to discuss the concept behind Brain Balance. In his book, “Disconnected Kids”, he proposes his theory that behavioral disorders, like autism, are caused by a brain imbalance.

“What it means is that one side of the brain is growing at a faster rate than the other,” Melillo said. “It’s basically like an old computer and a new computer. The point of the human brain is that it needs to be integrated. It needs to work together."

Melillo believes you can balance the brain by strengthening the weaker side. To do that, the center puts kids through a series of activities and exercises directed at the half of the brain that needs help.

“As we stimulate the brain cells it’s like stimulating muscle cells,” Melillo said. “If you use it, it will grow.”

The programs also include a strict diet tailored to each person’s needs. For the Adams family, it means dining as naturally as possible, free of gluten, casein and soy.

“More science has gone into this than any other program out there,” Melillo said.

But not everyone is convinced by the science his theories stand on. Inside the Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic at the University of Utah, Dr. Julia Connelly looks for treatment plans that have extensive research to support them.

“I get worried about people using a lot of their financial resources for things that, in the end, might not be as effective as they’re said to be,” Connelly said.

Some of the research advertised by Brain Balance includes a study published in a journal based in Israel and another in a leading autism journal in the U.S.

The second is a significant accomplishment, according to Connelly, as it showed some basis for Melillo’s theories that there is a brain imbalance in kids on the spectrum. But for her, it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s showing diminished activity in the right hemisphere of the brain,” Connelly said. “What I, at this point, do not see is the connection to his program and how connecting the two hemispheres will resolve all symptoms of autism.”

Connelly follows more traditional routes of treatment, backed by what she said is documented research and success stories like that of the Rogers family. Jenny Rogers’ son underwent years of intense therapy for autism.

“2 to 2.5 years old there was a lot of screaming,” Rogers said. “We walked on egg shells. We couldn’t drive in the car very far.”

The behavioral approach used by many looks at very specific symptoms of autism, like poor social skills, and through one-on-one therapy, tries to improve it over time.

Today, her son Jaden barely falls on the spectrum.

“I remember him as a 2 year old,” Rogers said. “I’m like, ‘Oh I’m never going to go out to eat. I’m never going to be able to take him shopping.' Whereas today, he’s in the classroom and he’s learning in the classroom.”

The progress came at a hefty cost, though, totaling about $60,000 a year to pay for the support team who worked with Jaden.

“We had to put our home on the market and sell it,” said Jason Rogers, who is Jaden’s father. “And the market was in a free fall, so we lost all our equity and moved in with our in-laws.”

The financial hardship, while worthwhile for them, is one of the reasons Brain Balance has some broad appeal. The center advertises short term costs, promising results about 3 to 6 months after starting the program.

“Our goal is to make this available to every child across the country,” Melillo said.

Brain Balance centers around the country are run by franchise owners, like Tammy Bingham, who bought into the business after her sons excelled in the program elsewhere.

“I knew that this was the answer not just for some kids, but really all kids,” Bingham said.

At her centers in South Jordan and St. George, each child is given an initial evaluation, followed by three months of sessions with the center staff, who Bingham said have a variety of backgrounds from exercise nutrition to psychology.

“If we have people here who are Ph.D.s, then all of our fees have to keep going up to afford people like that,” Bingham explained. “Whereas, if we have amazing people duplicating Dr. Melillo’s process, then we can do it in a way in a way that’s more affordable to them.”

State regulations prohibit Bingham’s staff from claiming they can treat kids on the autism spectrum, since none of the employees are medically licensed. They choose their words carefully on their website, referring to behavioral problems.

The upfront assessment costs $295, and while the price varies per person, the center charges about $6,000 for 36 sessions with their staff, followed by testing later.

Despite the debate in the medical community, for Adams, the investment was invaluable.

“I remember calling my dad one time and I couldn't even get out the words saying, 'I can't do this anymore, I can't do this anymore,’” Adams said, “Now, I’m able to breathe, and I’m able to enjoy my daughter. And I really enjoy her now.”

For more information, visit the center’s website.