Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Clutching At $3000 Straws

Via Liz Ditz EoR was alerted to the Sensory Learning Program (SLP). At first viewing this appears to be a legitimate webpage, but cracks rapidly appear in the seeming semblence of truth.

The Sensory Learning Program is comprised of two 30-minute sessions each day for 12 consecutive days, including weekends and holidays. Each session is an individual sensory experience simultaneously engaging visual, auditory and vestibular systems to work in an integrated way. The repetitive sensory activation of each session builds on the session before.

Now, this may or may not work, EoR isn't qualified to say, but the first warning signs are the rapidity of the therapy and the lack of detail of just how the therapy is applied and works. This still doesn't mean SLP doesn't work, but the details are not provided in order to determine that question. The next paragraph sounds another warning bell:

After twelve days of sessions in the Sensory Learning Center International, the individual returns home with a portable light instrument to continue the program, with a 20-minute session each morning and evening for the next 18 days.

"A portable light instrument"? What, exactly is that? On the positive side, it's probably easier to take home than a non-portable light instrument.

Yet another warning sign is the vast range of conditions that this one therapy can resolve: autism, Asperger's Syndrome, acquired brain injury, developmental delays, birth trauma, behaviour problems, ADHD, and "learning enhancement". Signs of altie magic are starting to show between the cracks of logic and plausibility. Altie remedies are always so much more powerful than real remedies: they work faster, and they cure a much larger range of conditions. Then there are the extra conditions known only to altie practitioners (such as "birth trauma"):

Even in a newborn, when the nervous system experiences physical trauma the brain begins to function as if it has an acquired brain injury. The child responds to ordinary sensory information as though the sensory messages are signaling a trauma.

Another sign of altie therapies is a preference for testimonials over scientific studies of effectiveness (usually because desperate people in search of a miracle cure are primed to see any change - real or not - as caused by the therapy in question, whereas scientific studies are more objective and actually look for evidence). The SLP pages are filled to bursting with testimonials, from parents, and Dr. Bradley E. Habermehl, O.D of Michigan who writes:

I first became aware of the work of Sensory Learning Center and the Sensory Learning Program when I saw firsthand the wonderful transformation it facilitated in the child of one of my patients, a young boy diagnosed with autism. His turn-around after the 30-day intervention showed positive changes in speech, cognition, and social behaviors. His autistic behaviors that were apparent before the intervention of the Sensory Learning Program have been greatly diminished. Both toe-walking and hand-flapping are now completely absent.

There's also a page for professionals along with testimonials from people with letters after their names. Unfortunately, they're all SLP practitioners, including, again, our friend Dr Bradley E. Habermehl, O.D. More signs of altie marketing. To be fair, it appears the good ODoctor Habermehl was amazed by the miracle powers of SLP before he became a franchisee, but it is, at the very least, highly deceptive to present a testimonial on one page from him as a consumer when he is, in fact, a seller.

The FAQ page provides the details of the therapy:

The Sensory Learning Program unites three modalities working with the visual, auditory and vestibular systems that are normally administered individually---into one seamless and holistic experience.

So... Ummm... It works how, exactly?

Subtle changes are often seen immediately. Many participants experience significant results during the initial twelve days. Others see changes in cumulative skills unfolding over the following weeks or months.

How are "subtle" changes seen? If they're subtle, how is it determined that the therapy caused them (other than wishful thinking, of course)? If a further range of varying effects is seen over a varying period of time, how is it determined that the therapy caused those as well, since there seems to be no standard response? Do these children also undergo other therapies during those periods? How are those eliminated when determining which therapy caused changes?

At least, unlike the true altie therapies, SLP only needs to be undergone once for its cure to take effect.

Some more warning signs of altie therapy can be found on the page about Mary Bolles, the founder:

An expert on the effect of Ocular Light Therapy on Learning Disabilities, Mary Bolles is a pioneer in the integrated use of light, sound and motion for sensory perception problems. Like many pioneers, Ms. Bolles began her quest in response to an unmet need as she sought help for her son, Jason, who was exhibiting behaviors consistent with children on the autism spectrum. Jason was still not talking at age three. He didn't want to be held and didn't sleep well. He had a volatile temper and his coordination was poor. Despite seemingly constant trips to doctor's offices and other specialists, when Jason repeated kindergarten twice, Mary knew she had to do something. Mary researched the nature of mild brain dysfunction and its relationship to sensory processing problems in the brainstem area. She explored a variety of developmental learning approaches and became determined to find a new learning system that would dramatically change the way Jason saw the world - a method that would go beyond medication, tutoring and behavior modification. After extensive independent study and an internship with the John-David Learning Institute in Carlsbad, CA, Mary discovered that combining three individual modalities (visual, auditory and vestibular) into one multi-sensory experience was capable of providing the positive results she'd been seeking for Jason. In 1997, Mary founded the Sensory Learning Institute and began providing the Sensory Learning Program to others. Mary Bolles holds a B.A. from Bowling Green State University and is an associate member of the College of Syntonic Optometry.

Note the plethora of warning signs there: an expert in a self-created field, a "pioneer" who found the answer doctors and researchers were too incompetent to provide, "dramatic change", "beyond medication", founded her own institute. Of course, there are and have been pioneers who have gone against the current of scientific belief, and won. There have also been thousands of others who were just pulling off a quick scam.

If SLP were so effective and dramatic surely, EoR reasoned, it would be accepted by mainstream practitioners, and used widely. There wouldn't just be this one woman and her "institute", and its self-created adherents, practising it. EoR went looking...

That "College of Syntonic Optometry" certainly sounded impressive. The site for the CSO claims

eighty percent of learning occurs by way of the eyes

Unfortunately, EoR always thought learning occurred by way of the brain. Perhaps the professionals would like to demonstrate learning in a braindead individual, but whose eyes were still functioning? It is possible that 80% of sensory input is via the eyes, but EoR would query even that figure. How is the 80% determined? Under what circumstances (certainly, 80% of EoR's sensory stimuli are not via the eyes at night, for example). And how come visually impaired people can still learn?

The college provides references to three papers claiming its phototherapy methods are effective (but provides no statement as to actual improvement, preferring instead comparatives such as "significantly superior"):

All three studies found profound improvements in the children who used syntonic phototherapy compared with subjects matched for age and academic success who did not. The non syntonics students either looked at white light (Kaplan), had optometric vision therapy (Liberman) or had optometric vision therapy and academic tutoring (Ingersol). The control students showed no or significantly less improvement in their peripheral vision, symptoms or performance than the phototherapy treated children. Ingersol found the experimental group receiving academic tutoring, vision therapy and syntonics had significantly superior outcomes than students given tutoring and vision therapy but no syntonics.

Luckily, the CSO provides a page of scientific evidence, tellingly entitled An Introduction to Syntonics as Energy Medicine (are all those altie bells ringing at once now? "Energy" medicine is one of the deepest, most impenetrable realms of the magic altie world).

The page begins by criticising "allopathic medicine" (that term alone is shouting "Altie! Altie! Get yer altie cures here!") for being rooted in the 19th century, and then goes on to relate various mad ideas in support of "light" from the early 20th century and earlier. Why do alties never see the contradictions in their own beliefs?

Apparently, the human body is a giant battery:

The photoreceptor and brain are positively charged and the choroid and liver are negative. The brain and liver have the greatest polarity and, according to Spitler, compose the animal's 'battery.' If the brain-liver polarity runs down, the animal weakens and at zero charge, the animal dies.

Of course, the only way light energy gets into the body is via the eyes (actually, it also enters via the skin, but let's not complicate the discussion with facts). This example from 1877 clearly demonstrates the altie "it works even though there are different effects every time" belief that pervades, particularly, homeopathy:

A proper dose for one often proves insufficient for a second and an overdose for a third, even where the symptoms are identical.

Or this piece of scientific wisdom:

Just as the sun is the primary generator of energy via electromagnetic radiation for Earth, Crile postulated that billions of tiny suns in the nucleus of each cell radiate light and that this light is the source of bioelectricity. Radiogen is Crile's descriptive term to denote the theoretical units of protoplasm in which oxidation occurs and from which radiation is emitted.

And the requisite quantum woo:

The body of life is an energy form. What seems to be solid structure is in constant flux. The atoms, molecules and cells of our body are short lived, yet we look, feel and act as if nothing has changed. What remains are the fields of energy that hold and guide life's developmental process.

Away from all the spruikers of their own miracle cures, what evidence is there for the magic effects of light, particularly in relation to learning disabilities? Sadly, very little. The Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine states

In syntonic optometry, the patient is exposed to one or more colors of light for a fixed period of time. This is done in a darkened room, with colors generated by a machine known as a syntonizer. In a typical session, a patient might absorb one color for 10 minutes, then another for an additional 10 minutes. Alternatively, just one color might be absorbed for 20 minutes. Treatment typically could involve between three and five sessions a week, for a period of four to eight weeks. In most cases, syntonics is used in conjunction with other therapeutic procedures. [...] The usefulness of syntonic optometry is a contentious issue, and a medical opinion should be sought in all cases of serious illness. The application of syntonic optometry to treating behavioral and learning disorders is especially controversial. [...] American Academy of Ophthalmology, an association of medical eye specialists, states that "as with other forms of vision therapy, there is no scientifically verified evidence to support claims for syntonic optometry."

Back to our friend, ODoctor Habermehl, who gets around:

Habermehl, astonished, looked over at Eric's mom, Rene Callahan of Howell. There were tears in her eyes.

"What," Habermehl asked, "did they do to him?"

"They" referred to the Sensory Learning Institute in Boulder, Colo., where Callahan took her son in the spring of 2003 for an "intervention" regimen developed by a researcher named Mary Bolles, whose son was autistic.

Habermehl, whom Callahan had consulted about vision therapy for Eric, says he lost no time. He wanted to know more about Bolles' sensory learning program right away.

"I called Mary that day. I said, 'I'm coming out to Boulder, and I'm bringing two staff members with me,' " he remembers.

Within six months, Habermehl opened the Flint Sensory Learning Center at his optometry practice on Richfield Road. Since August, people have come from all over the United States and Canada, bringing 170 children and adults suffering from autism, Asperger's syndrome, brain injuries, attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity for treatment that some parents say is positive and dramatic, but that critics complain is expensive and scientifically unproved. The cost of the regimen is about $3,000.

More signs of altie miracle cures: $3000 for 12 days (the other 18 days, remember, you do yourself at home). And then there's the classic altie statement that this is not, in fact, a cure:

"It's not a cure, but it was quite dramatic," says Rene Callahan, who now works for Habermehl as a "parent advocate," telling inquiring parents about the sensory learning program and Eric's experience.

Note also, yet again, the person who experienced the miracle cure also now has a financial interest in promoting the cure. Sorry, non-cure. At least this article gives a clearer idea of what is actually involved:

In [Mary Bolles'] "sensory learning" treatment, a child lays on a table in total darkness, typically holding the hand of a parent for comfort, since the experience is initially difficult for many kids. This table slowly moves in a gentle, rotating motion, sometimes from left to right and other times from "head to toe." At the same time, headphones placed over the child's ears play music, but with the input going in the right ear twice that of the left. According to some theory, this "right ear dominance" stimulates the left side of the brain, where the language and communication centers are located. The only thing the child sees during this process is a circle of light shining directly overhead, with the color of the light changing over the course of the sessions. This light stimulation comes from a kind of vision therapy. According to Bolles' theory, a child who undergoes these sessions is subconsciously re-learning, or re-programming, the way he senses motion, balance, light and sound, opening the way for them to better perceive and understand the world.

Of course, all EoR's readers can confirm the scientific accuracy of part of this, at least. Put your hand over your right ear. Have someone talk to you. Strangely enough, you will still be able to understand what they are saying, even though the information is coming to you from the "wrong" ear. The article also includes a dissenting view:

But medical science says there is no serious evidence this works. A school psychologist who wrote about related "sensory integration" therapies in the fall of 2002 said that the available studies so far showed that these have not worked. "I've had patients who've been in sensory learning who didn't make progress, but they're not telling you about them," UM's Solomon says.

Well, they wouldn't, would they? Especially since the whole enterprise is geared towards selling the therapy. One mother sums up quite succintly how these things prosper, after putting her son through SLP as well as numerous other therapies:

"Vince is doing better, but can we say why? No, it's impossible." she says. "We grasp at straws; we try anything that we've heard about that we think might help."

Habermehl, on the other hand, quite clearly shows that, regardless of any qualifications he might have, he chooses to ignore the scientific method in favour of the money-making method:

"I'm a clinician, I'm not a Ph.D," he says. "What I see means more to me than a study."


  1. Very good post. It would be VERY easy for each franchisee to give a standard, recognized sensory profile to each child before and after therapy, and quantify the results. None of that is done.

  2. This is a very unqualified and biased report. The quality of which is easily determined by the authors stupidity in not being able to work out exactly what a portable light source is! As an Australian myself, I know for a fact you have flashlights in that country. Have you never encountered one? Perhaps you still use burning sticks? Anyway, despite that, the rest of your blog is equally uninformed. I am currently using this therapy and finding it extremely beneficial in reducing my neuralgia headaches. The portable light source is not complicated to use (even simpler than a burning stick) and resembles a square/box like flashlight that simply provides a very low intensity flashing light of varying colors. This light box is intended to reinforce what the full system does. The full system, in addition to the light also provides motion and sound stimuli.

    I am not sure what part of the country you hail from but judging by the intellectual level of what you have written I suspect it is somewhere like Dubbo or even Cudal! However, as an Australian, resident in the USA, I have the benefit of obtaining this therapy from my medical practioner who is not trying to sell me a franchise, nor do I intend to buy one! This treatment whilst being very new, deserves to be allowed to be offered to people who could potentially benefit from it. I am very surprised at your resistance to something simply because it is new and unproven. You must definately be one of those few Aussies who resist progress. Australia has traditionally been a country where innovation and progress were saluted. Don't you remember the fax machine, cd player and cell phone? Which country were they trialled in first? That's right, Australia. I bet the world is very glad you didn't blog those innovations out of existance!

    Watch out for sharp sticks!

  3. Thanks for your enlightening comments David. Unfortunately, no matter how well the magic lights work for your headaches, they don't appear to be helping your underlying aggression issues. Is there anything in your comment that isn't a random list of abusive phrases? And just what have you got against Dubbo? Did they throw you out?

    I'm glad to read your alternative history where the mobile phone, fax and cd player were Australian inventions (which is a subject that is irrelevant to the substance of this post).

    EoR, however, is pleased that you're are happy using what you yourself admit is "unproven". Is your medical practitioner offering this service to you free? Are you part of a trial?

  4. A good ole' Dr. Habermehl post:
    It is exciting to think that we are being reviewed in Australia. I don't necessarily like the review, however, it is exciting never the least! The world is filled with skeptisism, so being speculative to the Sensory Learning Program is not surprising. A new study on multisensory interventions like the Sensory Learning Program just came out in July 2006. The study was done by UCLA and Boston University. I found that it gives credibility to what I have been seeing clinically for over 600 patients who have come to my center and received positive results. The following is the URL where you can review and even purchase the study:
    I hope this helps you understand why the Sensory Learning Program is so successful! Well, it's time for me to be "getting around"! Thanks for your interest in our Sensory Learning Program.
    Brad Habermehl,OD,FCOVD


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.