Bringing sweet music to their ears

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Frances Farrer investigates a pioneering new method of treating children with speech and language disorders

Speech and language disorders, however caused, have many unhappy results. One of the most obvious and the most devastating is the frustration at not being able to make oneself understood even at the simplest level - "I'm hungry", "I'm cold", or "I'm lonely". The consequences of this can be anger, frustration, even despair. They manifest in various behavioural disorders, including anger, destructiveness or total withdrawal.

A method of treating speech and language dysfunction by treating hearing disorders is being pioneered at Bladon House School near Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire and during the first 18 months of use it has had only positive results. It follows American and French research based on the observation that children who are autistic or have severe behavioural disorders often have dysfunctional hearing.

The method is known as AIT - Auditory Integrated Training. Children are played music selected within a range of frequencies, and with certain frequencies screened out, at gradually increasing volume, in half-hour periods over 10 days. The training takes place in a bare room in Bladon House, deliberately arranged to offer no visual distraction.

The music is made louder in one headphone than the other, affecting alternate sides of the brain. It is thought this affects the influence of each side of the brain on the other. To the average ear the music sounds horrible, slightly worse than a radio which is not properly tuned onto the station, oddly fizzing.

Suitability is carefully considered as it appears not all children are able to receive AIT. Reports from doctors, care workers, teachers and speech therapists, and a complicated set of around 30 permissions from parents are necessary before AIT can be given. The children's responses are monitored and recorded minute-by-minute throughout the sessions.

Though the results to date have been entirely positive, headteacher Richard Cubie is cautious with his enthusiasm. The effects need not be immediate, cannot be accurately predicted, and he warns, "the improvement in the children's language capacity often accompanies a reduction of compliance with adult wishes". The withdrawn child who starts to venture out of his shell may be going to say no to previously accepted situations as he does so.

The post-training audiogram (graph) almost always shows a flattening of the peaks and troughs which depict hyper-acute hearing. Some other conditions have unexpectedly improved after AIT, among them depression, asthma, and solvent abuse. These curious results are being looked into outside Bladon House and at present no one would prescribe AIT for such conditions.

But with these cautions, Richard Cubie reports "very significant improvements" to speech and language-impaired children who have received the training. "We would look for the children being more in touch, more in tune", he says. "Generally their concentration is better, and their hand-eye co-ordination. They are often able to initiate new things, relate to other children."

Differences in relationships have been noticed by parents. AIT co-ordinator Louise Parkes, who undertakes most of the training, says, "Parents report advances in eye contact, something which is often difficult for these children. One mother says she used to be just an object to her child and is now building a relationship".

Seven-year-old James Green attends a special school in Clwyd. His mother accompanied him to Bladon House for the training and noticed definite changes. "James couldn't stand the sound of running water", she says. "At the beginning of the week he'd block his ears as we walked by the fountain in Burton-on-Trent. At the end he didn't. Also, after the training he'd walk through his own school without blocking sound, play with his noisy toys, and even join in music lessons."

Richard Cubie was trained in AIT in Chicago in 1993, having read about the theory in Professor Guy Berard's book Hearing Equals Behaviour. "The idea that problem behaviours correlate directly to language deficits and the inability to interpret sounds was compelling", he says.

Professor Berard found that some kinds of hyper-acute hearing result in particular sounds and frequencies being heard more acutely, in a severe distortion of average hearing. The resulting confusion caused, for example, in a large, echoing hall full of people, or by the noise of an aircraft, can be extremely distressing. It was observed that about 40 per cent of autistic children suffered from this condition. During the late Eighties the Autism Research Review International, the newsletter of the Autism Research Institute, recorded the progress of research into hyper-acute hearing. The suggestion was made that such problems might constitute a cause and not just a symptom.

How it came about that Professor Berard's observations resulted in the formulation of AIT, with its complicated and precise screenings of frequencies, its prescribed lengths of training time and gradually increasing volumes, can be found in the published research. Perhaps more obscure is the reason why the training works. At the moment it seems no one knows, although 13 research programmes are trying to find out.

The AIT method is taught in America and France and in this country is given in its original form only at Bladon House, a privately-run school which is part of the Honormead Trust. Access is via recommendation and the training has to be paid for although the fee can vary somewhat. At the moment AIT is run at cost.

Richard Cubie emphasises that giving AIT is not simply a matter of buying the machine that plays the sounds. "I get enquiries from parents who've heard about it and think all you do is buy the specially adapted tape-recorder and your child will be better. They're desperate for a cure."

Nor will every suitable child automatically put up with sitting still for half an hour with headphones on. Mrs Green praises the Bladon response to this. "They're very good", she says. "They say, if the children don't sit still we won't go on. They might suggest coming back in another month, but they won't force it."

Louise Parkes gives a positive account of seven-year-old Robert, who has been through the training twice. "The carer who has worked with him for years came to me and said that it's only now that Robert can say what he thinks and what he likes that she realises how much time she's had to spend trying to guess. " The big achievement is this: "Now, he can say what he wants."

Further information from Richard Cubie at Bladon House School, Newton Solney, Burton on Trent, Staffordshire DE15 0TA. Tel: 01283 563787

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