Natural Practitioner — March 2013
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Practitioner Chat
Dr. Robert Melillo

The author of Disconnected Kids and Reconnected Kids, Dr. Robert Melillo is the creator and co-founder of Brain Balance Centers. He is an internationally known lecturer, educator, researcher and clinician in the areas of neurology, rehabilitation, neuropsychology and neurobehavioral disorders in children. Dr.Melillo is also an expert in nutrition with more than 20 years of clinical experience. His most recent book is titled Autism: The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders—and What Parents Can Do Now.

Dr.Melillo has been an adjunct professor of functional neuroanatomy for the graduate doctoral neuropsychology program at Touro College, New York and Leeds Metropolitan University, England. He is also an associate professor of clinical neurology and childhood behavioral disorders at The Carrick Institute in Florida. He holds a master’s degree in neuroscience and is currently completing his PhD in clinical rehabilitation neuropsychology. He is board certified in chiropractic neurology and is the former chairman of the American Board of Chiropractic Neurology.

Dr.Melillo still actively works with his colleagues at Brain Balance Centers in Ronkonkoma and Rockville Centre, New York. In addition, he is executive director of the F.R. Carrick Research Institute for Clinical Ergonomics, Rehabilition and Applied Neurosciences (CERAN). He is also president of the Foundation for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Q:What was the progression that led to this latest book?

A:Disconnected Kids was my first book and in it I wanted to explain to parents and professionals what was actually happening in the brain of a child with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, etc. The book explains what the problems are and how parents can help correct them.

My second book, Reconnected Kids, was written in response to the questions we were getting from the thousands of families we were working with in our Brain Balance Centers and questions I was getting from people using the book.

My newest book addresses what starts it all and how that may be prevented. I felt that now was the time that people were ready to hear the truth and that the science was there to back up the idea that autism could be prevented. I had also talked to a group of young adults one weekend, and many of them explained that they were deciding not to have children because they were afraid of having a child with autism or some other developmental disability. I wanted them to understand that not having children was not the only way—and certainly not the best way—to prevent a disability in your child.

Q:Why are autism rates increasing?

A:When we talk about autism rates, there are two words that people need to understand: prevalence and incidence.

Prevalence is the number of individuals that have a diagnosis, and everyone agrees that those numbers have exploded over the past two to three decades. Autism has gone from roughly one in 10,000 children to now one in 88 children, or one in 54 boys in the U. S. The controversy about whether this constitutes an epidemic revolves around the incidence, which is the number of new cases. Many people assume that although the prevalence has clearly increased, they argue that the incidence has not, rather that we are just better at recognizing autism.

I spent a year researching this and speaking to many scientists and I think that both are increasing dramatically, but that around 60 percent of the increase represents new cases that did not exist before. If this is the case, then the only factors that could cause that level of epidemic rise in such a short time are environmental factors. This means that genes or gene mutations alone cannot explain the rise because genetic mutations take generations to increase a disorder, and it takes a long time for genes to spread.

I have identified more than 40 known environmental factors that have been shown to significantly raise the risk of having a child with autism or some other disability. The good news is that the vast majority of these factors can be easily measured and quantified, and they can be eliminated or greatly reduced thereby also reducing or even virtually eliminating the risk of having a child with autism. The most profound environmental factors are “lifestyle” factors such as diet, exercise, stress, age and overall health. There are also some known genetic predispositions or traits that increase the risk of having a child with autism. This trait is a normal trait, not a genetic mutation, and it seems that people who are on the “geeky” side are more prone to have a child with autism. I have defined this trait as very left-brain dominant, and I have included a checklist in my book that individuals and couples can fill out to determine if they have this autism trait. They can’t modify this, but they can modify all of the other risk factors. Risk is cumulative so the more you have, the more your risk goes up.

Q:What are the common myths about autism?

A:I think two of the biggest myths about autism are that people believe it is purely a genetic disorder caused by a genetic mutation, therefore nothing can be done to completely correct or even significantly improve symptoms long term. Also, I think that most people assume that there is some sort of brain injury or physical damage that children with autism have. The reason why autism is so mysterious is that the brains of children with autism, for the most part, look perfectly normal; there is no injury or obvious pathology. The only difference is that there seems to be some different type of growth process occurring where certain areas seem to be smaller or underdeveloped, and other areas seem more mature and overdeveloped relative to their age.

Another major myth is that autism cannot be prevented.We have been told that autism is a genetic disorder, but that is not what the science tells us.We also hear that 10 to 15 percent of autism is due to genetic mutations, however what we are really looking at is that children with genetic mutations, such as fragile X or Down’s syndrome, are also diagnosed with autism. I argue that this isn’t really autism, this is a genetic disorder with autism features, but these children do not fit the profile of the 85 percent of children with autism.

The cause is what we call epigenetic. This means environmental factors are interacting with genes and turning them off when they should be on, especially genes that build connections in the brain. These genes make up 85 percent of all of our genes and are the most susceptible to environmental factors. As people are told that because autism, ADHD and dyslexia are “genetic” disorders, parents believe there is nothing they can do to correct this problem long term. But this is not true in most cases—if the problem is epigenetic, then we can turn these genes on, and if the environment is to blame, then ultimately the cure for autism is prevention.

Also, most people with autism don’t have children, so why would it be increasing if it was genetic? It should be going down. But the parents and siblings do share personality and intellectual traits that are similar to the autistic children. This is not a mutation, this is a normal trait, but people with autism and their parents seem to have an extreme version of this trait. There are other genetic factors that can be measured and completely compensated for. One study has shown that if a woman takes prenatal vitamins three months before and for the first month of pregnancy she reduces her risk of having a child with autism by 60 percent. If she has a copy of a gene that affects her folic acid levels called the MTHFR gene, her risk goes up to 500 percent. If she has another copy of a similar gene known as COMT, her risk of having a child with autism goes up to 800 percent. However, if she takes enough folic acid before she is pregnant she completely eliminates those risks.

Q:How can autism be detected sooner?

A:Most children are not diagnosed with autism until age 4 or 5, which is ridiculous.Most children with autism should be detected much earlier and I think they can be identified within 1 year of age. The best way to know if a child is developing normally is to pay close attention to their motor milestones. Research has shown that the main feature that is different between children with autism and their siblings is their motor development. Children with autism almost always have some delay and they usually have some motor coordination problems like clumsiness and altered muscle tone. As soon as a child doesn’t roll over at 3 to 5 months, a parent and a professional should start to intervene. Unfortunately, this is not what happens— parents are told not to worry and to just wait and see. This is a big mistake.

Q:What prevention or treatment plans are available for babies and young children?

A:The prevention plan for an adult who does not have any disability and who is considering having a child is different then what we would do for a child who already has a diagnosis.

If a child is diagnosed with a disorder, it is too late to prevent it and we now have to reverse it. This is what I discuss in my first two books; the Brain Balance Program is the best way to eliminate a current problem and prevent it from getting any worse.

My new book is directed toward a young couple or individual considering getting pregnant or who finds themselves pregnant and wants to try to prevent their child from being born with a disability like autism. Many of these people have already had one child or maybe even two that have a disability and they want to have more children, but they are scared. These are real concerns—autism is increasing at 17 to 20 percent per year. This means that in five years the number of children being born with autism will double.

I outline a clear 10-step program that any adult can easily do. There are specific tests including blood tests, genetic tests, hormone testing and saliva tests that are simple and relatively inexpensive to get done. I provide very specific tests that measure all of the risk factors that I have identified in the book. I also use the specific functional measurements as a baseline that will be used to measure how effectively the parent(s) can lower every risk factor and when they are in a “safe” range. I generally suggest that a couple or individual start a year in advance of pregnancy.

Q:What are natural approaches for treating autism?

A:The natural approach is what I describe in Disconnected Kids. In that book and in our Brain Balance Centers we never use or recommend medications, primarily because we are learning centers and not health care facilities, but also medication is never a long-term solution and does not address the actual problem in the brain. The whole idea of chemical imbalances in the brain as the primary cause of mental and academic issues is no longer considered a viable theory in scientific circles. Instead, we are looking at electrical, functional and activation imbalances, and problems with functional connectivity and communication between areas of the brain, especially between the two hemispheres.

The concept of “Functional Disconnection,” which my research partner and I have been the primary researchers to identify and promote, is really the leading and most accepted theory in neuroscience at this time. Therefore, the “natural” approach is actually the only approach that makes sense. Brain cells are like muscles cells—the more you use or stimulate them, the more they grow. Brain cells are different in that when they are activated by use, they grow connections to other brain cells, which improves communication and coordination between larger groups of brain cells. The problem that results in a functional disconnection is really a developmental imbalance where one side of the brain is growing and maturing at a faster rate then the other side of the brain. This results in an imbalance in the processing speed of the two hemispheres, which affects their ability to share information. This results in a child relying on areas on one side of the brain causing certain functions to be very advanced on one side with other skills delayed on the other side. This ultimately is what autism is, so the solution is to identify which areas of the brain are underdeveloped and then specifically stimulate those areas at the same time to stimulate the brain cells in that area to grow until those weak areas match those areas that are strong.

The other issue is that many children with autism have an imbalance in the immune system and dysfunction in the digestive system because the brain is imbalanced. Together, this increases inflammation in the brain and the body of these individuals.

We describe this as their brain is “on fire.”We are trying to “build” the brain and we can’t do that while it is inflamed, so we need to use an illumination diet and various supplements that will reduce inflammation and promote growth. But once we correct the brain imbalance most of the children we work with no longer need special diets or vitamins.

Q:What is the Melillo Adult Hemispheric Checklist, and how is it used?

A:The adult checklist is used to assess a brain imbalance and whether the adult has a right- or left-brain weakness. It focuses on the adult’s deficiencies and is a good screening tool along with a proper evaluation to identify if their brain is functioning at the optimum level. The checklist looks at all the different systems, such as the motor skills, sensory processing, cognitive skills, immunity and immune imbalances, digestive issues, inflammatory markers, emotional imbalances and more. The brain controls every system in the body including the immune system, hormones, the digestive system and the detoxification system.

The Child Master Hemispheric Checklist is available in my first two books. A parent can fill it out to assess their child’s hemispheric deficiencies and how this may relate to the child’s symptoms or struggles in school.

It’s important to note that these are screening tools and that the best evaluation is going to be done in a Brain Balance Center. For adults, this screening should be coupled with a proper evaluation by a professional that is a specialist in functional neurology or functional medicine.

Q:What surprises you most in your study of autism? What research are you interested in and what would you like to see done?

A:What surprises me most is how little parents, professionals and the public in general know about autism and what is happening in the brain. Most people also think that there is a lot more funding for research than there actually is.We have made very good strides in research—understanding the mechanisms of what is happening— but we have so much more to learn. Research is most focused on the timing component of the brain cells and their coordination and/or synchronization.We are learning that a disruption in the timing of brain cells or areas of the brain may actually be the primary problem.

I would also like to see more research on the outcome of these prevention programs. We need to understand what environmental factors are causing autism, how they increase the risk and what they are actually doing in the brain.

Q:What recommendations do you offer practitioners and parents dealing with autism?

A:First I suggest they read my books and research papers because they need to educate themselves and familiarize themselves with the research. I am appalled at how most professionals have no idea what is actually happening in the brain of a child with autism, even when they are working with these children every day. I also think that both professionals, parents and anyone considering having a child can prevent childhood disabilities and that we need to realize that we all have to operate under a different approach, and we need to approach pregnancy in a very serious way. As I said earlier, ultimately the cure for autism and most other disabilities is prevention.