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Silencing the Roar

The followng is from an article written by Diana Heil published in the Santa Fe New Mexican March 28, 2005.


Paula Abdul’s Promise of a New Day pulsed in and out of oversized headphones. On the other end was Haley Marcus, an 8-year-old hoping for Wonder Woman ears. 

In school, she has a hard time sounding out words — and spelling them. The loud pop music has been altered to exercise her ears. A machine pulls sounds in and out from the song, like a bad stereo.

Haley will rock out for a total of 10 hours over two weeks at Laurie Ross-Brennan’s new office in Santa Fe. Auditory Integration Training , the name for this treatment , is designed to normalize how her brain processes and organizes sounds. The pre-recorded music must contain all frequencies of sound, from low to high.

“Healthy eardrums should work like trampolines,” said Ross-Brennan , a speech-language pathologist. “Random frequencies flex and extend the eardrums.”

Twice a day, at lunch break and after school, Haley spends 30 minutes getting her treatment. It’s all about music pumping through the ears — and playing games.

“It’s fun,” Haley said in a loud voice as she threw a dart at the target on the wall. “The fun part is beating her at games.”

Clearly, though, this is medicine of another kind. Dr. Guy Bérard , an ear, nose and throat specialist in France, came up with this technique to treat hearing loss. Later, he realized the technique could help people with all kinds of sound- processing problems. Abnormal hearing can lead to disoriented and agitated behavior.

In 50 years of clinical practice, Bérard found AIT helped, but did not cure, patients with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, autism, dyslexia, hyperactivity , pervasive development disorders, auditory processing disorders and depression . Better attention span, decreased sound sensitivity and improved language skills are some of the benefits.

In New Mexico, Ross-Brennan’s practice is the only place to get this treatment. A speech-language pathologist since 1984, she was certified to administer auditory integration training in 1993 by Bérard . “It feels like your ears are doing pushups,” she said.

Since then, she has treated several thousand patients, including people from all over the United States, and claims an 85 percent success rate. Patients range from age 3 to 76.

Her practice is based in Albuquerque, but recently she opened a small office in Santa Fe around the corner from St. Michael’s High School. In the first month, she said she served 30 new patients from Santa Fe, Pecos, Chimayó , Española , Los Alamos and Pojoaque.

AIT has gained attention as an alternative treatment for autism. But only 14 percent of Ross-Brennan’s clients last year had that diagnosis.

Most people who seek her help are struggling with other problems, or simply want to navigate through life with more ease. For one woman, the irritating hum of fluorescent lights was keeping her from going to medical school.

“If there’s an auditory component to what’s going on with you and I can document that with a screening, we can fix that part regardless of the diagnosis,” Ross-Brennan said. “So many of us would benefit from having our ears strengthened and balanced. It cannot damage you in any way.”

Some are students who can’t sort through the noise in class. Others are people for whom sound is actually painful. They skip parties. They won’t flush the toilet. They’re irritable: “When you smack your gum, it’s like an ice pick to my brain!”

Ross-Brennan said she has seen delayed children and stroke victims speak for the first time during treatment.

People with brain diseases, such as schizophrenia, can benefit, too, she said. “It does not cure mental illness,” she emphasized. “But if they have hypersensitive hearing, I can make that better.”

Teachers, therapists and occupational therapists refer patients to her. But Ross-Brennan admits, “Audiologists hate the idea that I’m messing with ears.”

Ross-Brennan says AIT won’t help a war veteran with nerve damage to the inner ear, or a person with hearing loss caused by old age. The hair cells are damaged and won’t hear certain frequencies again. She sends them to an audiologist, she said.

Each patient is screened before and after treatment.

Patients put on headphones and raise their hand upon hearing each soft tone. Each ear is tested separately. Responses are charted on a graph.

If the ears are unbalanced , the chart looks like a mountain range. If the gap between the most- and leastsensitive levels of hearing is 20 decibels or more, the patient can be treated with AIT, she said.

Her patients’ charts showed the progress after treatment. Just 10 hours of AIT has a lasting effect, said Ross-Brennan . “It keeps working and you keep improving,” she said.

Teachers have noticed students who have received AIT putting together multiword phrases and participating more in class. “Today he played and stirred shaving cream with a spoon,” one teacher wrote. “He wouldn’t have gone near it or touched the shaving cream before.”

Susan Tomita, an Albuquerque attorney, tried AIT for her suicidal, friendless and heavily medicated son in 1999. Two years later, she cited remarkable progress. Her son was able to make and keep good friends, and he no longer needed much medication, except for attention deficit disorder. He still lacked motivation in academics , however.

Many children have nothing wrong with them. They just need a boost so that their grades are commensurate with their brains, Ross-Brennan said.

“Every school system should have the machine,” she said.

At least 28 studies have been done on the effectiveness of AIT for people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, central auditory processing disorder and mental retardation. The findings are mixed. What’s more, some studies involved very few patients, and others did not make use of a control group for comparison or were flawed in other ways.

“The balance of the evidence clearly favors AIT as a useful intervention, especially in autism,” according to the Autism Research Institute in San Diego.

Skeptics do exist, however. Some researchers view ear exercise as hogwash and lacking a plausible rationale.

“A good deal of what has been written about AIT is excessively skeptical, negative or derogatory, permeated with the assumption that AIT is ineffective,” the Autism Research Institute notes in a review of the research.