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Can ideas from complementary and alternative medicine help those struggling with dyslexia? Maria Chivers investigates

Complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) is one of the fastest growing markets in the developed world and its influence is felt across all areas of health, wellbeing and SEN. There are hundreds of therapies that claim to help, alleviate or even “cure” dyslexia. They range from those based on solid scientific research to the plainly outlandish. While I always advise that people should show caution when dealing with these therapies, they should also open themselves up to new ideas. After all, chiropractic was once viewed as alternative therapy, but is now considered to be a health profession and is routinely recommended by doctors.

Many therapists believe that doctors will only treat your symptoms, while CAM therapists focus on respect for the whole person and his/her innate healing abilities. CAM assists the natural healing wisdom of the body through natural approaches, thereby healing the whole person rather than just the problems presented at the time.

On the whole, CAM therapists are not state registered, so anyone can set up in business. There are no scientific studies, or very little evidence of the safety and effectiveness of therapies, whilst conventional medical approaches generally go through years of testing before implementation. Many doctors are, in fact, calling for greater control and registration of CAM.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) and problems can reveal themselves in reading, writing, number work, short-term memory, hand control and visual processing. Timekeeping, sense of direction and interpersonal skills can also be affected. These difficulties often result in great frustration, particularly given that most dyslexics are of at least average intelligence.

I believe that dyslexics can and do benefit from some forms of CAM. As each dyslexic learner is different, though, no specific method or therapy will suit them all. It is important to start from an understanding of what dyslexia is and how it affects individuals, and to identify the problems the particular student is having with learning before looking at what kind of therapy may help him/her.
I will focus here on four key areas of CAM, those relating to hearing, developmental therapies, nutrition and massage.

Hearing

It is now widely accepted that some dyslexics have difficulties with auditory skills and appear to be hypersensitive to certain sound frequencies (Schulte-Korne, Deimel, Bartling et al., 1998). This can lead to problems with sound discrimination, auditory processing, auditory discrimination, concentration, memory skills and, ultimately, self-esteem.

Many alternative therapies are designed to normalise the auditory system, changing how the brain processes and organises the information it receives from the ears. For instance, some use special headphones to deliver a broad range of frequencies to retrain the auditory system. This can also be achieved by listening to music each day.

Another therapy involves the use of a metronome. For centuries, musicians have used metronomes to help them keep time, and in recent years these devices have been used to help those with Parkinson’s and stroke patients. Work has also been carried out to use metronomes with those with dyslexia and ADHD (Schaffer et al., 2001).

Quite simply, a metronome works by keeping time; many people with dyslexia and ADHD have difficulty processing different sounds and staying on task. Metronomes help students focus, pay attention to certain sounds and block out all other noises. Physiotherapists and occupational therapists use the metronome to help train the brain to plan, sequence and process information more effectively through repetition of interactive exercises. These drills use repeated hand, toe, and heel exercises, which are carried out thousands of times, while keeping in time with the metronomic beat.

This method has undergone scientific trials and has shown improvement in attention, concentration, motor control and coordination. Such therapy can be carried out over a relatively short period of time, and may show results within a five week period.

Developmental therapies

Many therapists working with movement-based techniques believe that learning problems can be caused by immature (primitive) reflexes remaining in the body. Attainment of balance, hand-eye coordination, motor control and perceptual skills, may be delayed or inhibited as a result. There has been a lot of research in recent years to show that some children with these problems can be helped with a movement-based programme (see, for example, Koester and Sherwood, 2001; Blythe, 2005). 

There is now a significant number of therapists offering different types of exercise programmes covering areas such as simple movements, throwing beanbags, catching and throwing balls at targets, balancing on different objects or looking at flashing lights on computers. It is these special routines, which are repeated over and over again, that are designed to improve reflexes.

These kinds of exercises are said to stimulate and develop sensory integration, spatial awareness, dexterity, motor skills and the sense of balance. The idea is that they should help organise processing in the brain in order to improve a child’s overall functioning in areas of learning such as reading and writing. This is understood to work because of the relationship of movement to perception and the impact on fine motor and academic skills; it works on the physical rather than the mental components of learning. It is suggested that once an exercise program has been set up for the individual person, it could easily be carried out in schools during a PE lesson or at home.

When technology is used with computer games, it is said to help stimulate eye tracking, visual neural pathways and the cerebellum. The object of some of the games is to keep a lighted dot in the correct place, while the background continually changes. It is claimed that this can help to address the neurological causes of dyslexia. The majority of these therapies claim that they are helpful for a wide range of learning issues, including reading difficulties, dyslexia, clumsiness, ADHD, handwriting problems and low self-esteem. A word of caution: as with other CAM therapies, while some have been carried out over many years, others are quite new and have very little scientific research to back up their claims.

A well-balanced diet may have a positive impact on dyslexia.Diet and nutrition

It is generally accepted that eating a balanced diet is essential to children’s mental and physical development. However, could deficiencies in vital vitamins and minerals even be a cause of dyslexia?

Over the last two decades, much research has been carried out into the relationships between food and dyslexia, ADHD and other issues affecting learning (Dewhurst et al., 2003; Konofal et al., 2004; Bruner et al., 1996). Many of these research papers have looked at fatty acid deficiencies, salicylates, food additives, colourings, flavourings, refined sugar, zinc and iron deficiencies, herbal medicine, food allergies, and multiple chemical sensitivities.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) play a major role in brain function. They are required for visual functioning in the retina of the eye, in the synapses of the brain, in nerve tissues and in the adrenals for regulating stress. EFAs must be provided through diet. The richest source of EFAs is said to be oily fish. It may be that one of the problems with modern diets is that they lack EFAs, perhaps because we are eating less fish than before.

Many believe that fatty acid deficiency may be to blame for reported increases in dyslexia over the last 20 years (Richardson, 2002; Richardson and Puri, 2002; Portwood, 2002).

Zinc is one of the body’s most important trace minerals and there have been suggestions that people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties may be deficient in this mineral (Grant, Howard and Davies, 1988).

Iron is also extremely important for building our bodies. Research indicates that even a minor deficiency in iron may weaken the immune system and impair general physical performance. A French study (Konofal et al., 2004) has identified a link between iron deficiency and ADHD. An earlier study published in the Lancet (Bruner et al., 1996) found that teenage girls showed cognitive improvement when they we given iron supplements. It may be that this deficiency is enough to change the iron levels in the brain, which in turn alter the way neurotransmitters behave in the brain.

There is so much research to suggest that a well-balanced diet can help with dyslexia. EFAs, zinc and iron are all available as supplements, but you should always check with your doctor before taking them.

The power of touch

Massage therapy is often seen as a holistic approach and many therapists work alongside medical professionals to promote good health, strengthen the immune system, flush out toxins and provide stimulation and relaxation. It is clear to most people that if a child is stressed, s/he will not be able to work effectively or learn in that environment.

If you have a headache, one of the first things you do is to rub your head. With remedial massage, specific movements can help. Massage is said to help dyslexia by improving coordination and providing a calmer environment for learning.

With the expanding use of CAM, the International Association of Infant Massage has been set up to help the growing number of parents seeking to look at infant massage and how it can assist their children. Most parents touch and massage babies as soon as they are born, thereby building up a wonderful rapport. Massage can help to strengthen and develop the immune system and provide vital sensory stimulation.

Aromatherapy is a form of complementary healthcare that can work alongside more conventional treatments. Studies have shown that inhaling certain aromas can have an almost immediate effect on the limbic area of the brain – the centre of our emotions and memory (Buck and Axel, 1991; Wilkinson et al., 1999).

The therapeutic power of essential oils helps the body to heal itself. Aromatherapy is a holistic treatment of the whole person, not just of his/her symptoms. The essential oil ylang-ylang is said to be one of the best for nervous tension and to counter the build up of frustration. Rosemary is believed to help with stress disorders and to aid concentration. A massage that covers the head, upper back, upper arms, shoulders, neck, scalp and face is particularly effective at relieving stress.

Helping those with dyslexia

Many children with problems with learning suffer from low self-esteem. However, with the right teaching approaches and interventions, and the help of appropriate complementary therapies, I believe that some of the difficulties associated with dyslexia can be alleviated, which in turn can have a huge effect in terms of boosting confidence.

When considering any of the approaches mentioned, it is important to maintain an open mind, but also to use common sense. No matter how good these techniques are supposed to be, it is important not to ignore good old-fashioned teaching methods that have stood the test of time. There are also many established approaches to managing dyslexia which should always be considered.

Opticians and behavioural optometrists have become more and more involved in working with those with dyslexia in recent years, and the use of coloured overlays and lenses, for example, is well known to be of benefit to many dyslexic children and young people.
There are many alternative therapies that may be able to help you or your child with dyslexia, but only you can make the decision about which approaches might be best in your particular case. My own experience, after working for so long in this field, has led me to believe wholeheartedly in some of these complimentary approaches to dyslexia, though others I simply cannot vouch for. I hope, though, that I have, at the very least, provided some food for thought in this article, and perhaps the inspiration to consider and try some of these approaches for yourself.

Further information

Maria Chivers is the author of Dyslexia and Alternative Therapies and the founder of DyslexiaA2Z (formerly Swindon Dyslexia Centre). She has two sons, both of whom have dyslexia:
www.dyslexiaa2z.com

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