April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism is a growing epidemic affecting 1 in 68 children and increasing in the United States. While the cause and appropriate treatment is still blurry, we have learned a great deal about how autism affects the brain, which opens the door for emerging strategies to help improve brain function. Autism is a devastating condition for both the child and family because of the way it affects different areas of the brain. The brain relies on intricate connections much like the wiring of a computer to process and transmit information for human function and survival. In autism, specific areas responsible for emotions, social behavior, and decision making lose their ability to fire and communicate properly. One very interesting part of the brain affected is the CEREBELLUM which controls balance, coordination, and motor tasks. Recent studies in psychology and neurology show that this area is connected to the behavioral and cognitive areas of the brain, and that improving the function of the cerebellum can have a positive impact on the other behavioral centers! How can we improve and protect the cerebellum?
THE NECK, THE EYES, THE EARS – THE CEREBELLUM’S BEST FRIENDS
The cerebellum relies heavily on information gathered from the eyes, ears, and the neck to coordinate the way we move. Special receptors in the neck, and accurate information received by the eyes and ears relay what is known as PROPRIOCEPTION into the cerebellum. This allows the brain to know where the body is in time and space relative to the environment. This can only happen if the information is accurate. This means that the eyes must be able to stabilize on a target properly, follow a moving target and change targets efficiently. The inner organs of the ear communicate with the head and neck to establish the body’s appropriate position relative to the center of gravity. In essence, this is equilibrium or BALANCE. When the head and neck shift out of position, certain muscles and areas of the spinal cord responsible for conveying this information are irritated. This creates a disturbance in information into the cerebellum about balance and coordination. As mentioned previously, the cerebellum is connected to all other parts of the brain, and as such, social and emotional centers can be influenced by a constant bombardment of inaccurate information regarding balance and coordination. By correction and protecting the alignment of the upper neck and improving the way the eyes perform these various tasks, we can make a lasting difference in the quality of life of children with autism and/or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).