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How Training the Brain Helps Heal Dyslexia, Autism, and ADHD

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ARS Electronica CC

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 08/13/15

Brain Training of Maryland founder, Kate Ortman, talks about her work

When

Kate Ortman
started a family years ago she had no idea she would one day be running an organization dedicated to brain healing. As founder and director of Brain Training of Maryland in Columbia, Maryland, Ortman now works with a wide range of clients from around the country — but among her very first clients were her own children.

Ortman and her husband eventually became parents to six kids, some of whom experienced challenges such as ADD, learning disabilities, brain injury, and attachment issues (in some of their adopted children).

"I went everywhere to find help, and at one point had six kids in six different schools. You name it, I did it, and I sought many specialists to try and help," says Ortman.

A turning point came when one of Ortman’s sons, Dan, who had been on the Dean’s List in college, needed brain surgery. He recovered, but had lingering issues. Using a program called Interactive Metronome, Dan got better and Ortman began using it to help other students. She saw amazing results and decided, in 2011, to move operations from her dining room table into a professional office.

Today, Brain Training of Maryland employs 16 staff and sees approximately 125 clients each week, not including the many long-distance clients they work with. The organization recently moved to a larger facility to accommodate a growing clientele. 

Ortman recently spoke to Zoe Romanowsky about her work and the hope it’s bringing to many individuals and families.

*******

Zoe Romanowsky: Kate, you’re not a doctor or a brain scientist, but you now run an organization focused on training and healing the brain. What inspires people to walk through your door?

Kate Ortman: They want to be healthier. There are different kinds of people who come to us: Those that are desperate, who’ve looked everywhere for solutions—they often know the latest brain science research and have heard of the modalities we use. There are also the curious ones who want to see what we do and how it can help them. We serve a wide range of clients such as people with severe concussions and stroke, children with various challenges, and peak performers and athletes who want to gain more of an edge. 

The notion that you can train or even retrain the brain is still largely unknown to people. Can you explain how it is possible to rewire our brains? 

Through brain science, brain imaging, and other tests, we now know that new neurons, new connectivity in the brain, can be built. I use the following analogy with kids a lot:  Our brain has many dirt roads and sometimes they have roadblocks, so we need to build new dirt roads to get information from one area to another. But we don’t just want to stop there; we want to pave those dirt roads and then turn them into super highways.  As our brain is processing better we can enter into a calm, focused state.

We pay a lot of attention to data and research and we’ve seen brain imaging after usage of our programs. These images reflect a healthier brain. We evaluate and track our clients’ progress throughout the process. We do intense evaluations and re-evaluations every three months and we see brain connectivity change—for example, a child who needs special education being able to go into a regular classroom, or someone who was in the 25th percentile now in the 75th percentile in reading after just six months of brain work.

Can adults rewire their brains, too, or is it just children?

Yes, they can. It’s a little harder; it takes longer, but we can definitely change our brains throughout our lifetime. Neuro-timing, for example, is important for adults. When the brain and body are in sync, a person is able to do more with less effort.


You treat a lot of children with learning issues (like ADHD and sensory processing disorders), developmental challenges and delays (like autism and Asperger’s) and attachment disorders, etc. What kind of changes are you seeing in the kids you work with? 

One thing very close to my heart is dealing with the, "fight or flight" that many adopted and foster children feel. Three of my children were adopted, and I’ve been active in adoptive and foster care work for many years. We are all born with the same stress hormones as our birth mother, so if that pregnancy was stressful, we’re affected by that. We want to help calm that central nervous system. I’ve seen some pretty significant problems resolve. 

One of my own kids has had severe adoption issues, and I never thought I’d have a good relationship with her. Now I do!  My husband and I mortgaged our house to get help for her and nothing worked until we tried brain training. This is the reason we have invested so much into this—because we want to be able to offer this to other people. I like to say that every adopted and foster child should come with an iLS (Interactive Listening Systems) unit! 

With some issues, you see results quickly, like with ADHD. Other things take longer, like dyslexia and auditory processing problems. We usually start seeing change within six weeks and by six months, you can look back and say, “Wow!” We keep a lot of records so we can go back and compare, because change can be gradual. 

One big thing we see is parents reporting that homework used to be a big deal and now it’s done and in the backpack —it’s not a big deal anymore. The other thing, is when something doesn’t go right or there’s a problem, it’s not a big deal, there are fewer, “meltdowns”. So we are seeing healthier reactions. If a brain is healthier, there is less anxiety, frustration, and depression. 

Can you briefly explain the programs you use?

There are three main ones: I got into Interactive Metronome to help my son, Dan, recover from his brain surgery.   Interactive Metronome targets neuro-timing to improve cognitive and motor skills. It’s used to improve attention, coordination, language processing, reading and math fluency, as well as impulsivity and aggression control.  

Interactive Listening Systems or iLS, is a music based program; it’s mostly classical and Gregorian chant that’s been filtered and treated to improve brain functioning. You listen with special headphones that provide music through both air conduction and bone conduction. The iLs programs improve emotional regulation while training the brain to process sensory information enabling clients to focus, think, and engage successfully in social situations. 

The third main modality we use is Scientific Learning—Fast Forward. It’s a reading-based program to help with English language and improve brain fitness. It’s exciting to see students become excited about reading and above grade level readers improve their processing speed. Self-esteem and confidence bloom for those using the program.  We’ve seen so many students go up a multiple grade levels in a matter of months.   

Are you always on the look out for cutting edge programs to use and do you keep on top of the latest research in brain science? 

I’m a geek for the research. Although I’m not a doctor, I have a really good sense of the science, and stay well-read. Every program we try, we pilot intensely and then decide whether to include it in our program.  

What are you most excited about right now when it comes to brain healing? 

I’m excited that we can change the quality of someone’s life and relationships. I was talking to a grandmother about all the things her grandchild can now do that she couldn’t do before and what stood out most to me is that the child now has friends and connects with other people. That alone is huge.


You’re Catholic; how has your faith inspired and enhanced your work?  

My faith is incredibly important to me and informs all that I do. The way I see it, God has given us the ability and knowledge to heal. If people are in such a state of fight or flight, and struggling with so many, issues, it’s harder to connect with other people and even with God, because our problems often make us turn to ourselves. Being as healthy as you can be in soul, mind, and body is what I strive for and what I strive to give others. I pray for all my clients. 

You claim to be one of the only facilities in the world that combines modalities to enhance brain performance. Why do you think more places aren’t doing this? 

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who combines all the modalities we use, although I do know people trained in one or two of them. A lot of these modalities are used in occupational therapy and hospital settings, but in order to get them you have to be worse off than many of our clients, so we’re missing a whole population who can benefit from them.

Are there other healing modalities or lifestyle changes you discuss with clients to enhance healing?

Yes. Quality sleep, diet, and exercise are paramount to good brain health. Limiting screen time, increased outdoor play for kids, fostering their imagination. All of these things make a big difference.

For someone reading this who may have a child with reading difficulties, or a diagnosis of autism, or trauma in the past, or who may not even know what’s wrong, what is your advice to them?

Seek answers. Don’t think you can’t make significant change. And don’t wait. Children internalize things and don’t always tell us how much they’re struggling. Sometimes they look lazy or inattentive when there’s more of a struggle going on inside. When they finally get excited about learning, having friends, etc., it’s worth the time and investment. 

Your organization is expanding and just moved into a larger facility. What’s next?

There’s a great demand. We will open other sites. It’s important to me that it’s done well. We have a phenomenal team who think outside the box and are passionate about helping others. We’ve come up with our own evaluations, which are top notch that can pinpoint what’s going on, and we follow and track clients. I want to continue to reach for excellence in all that we do. 

You can learn more about Kate Ortman’s work at Brain Training of Maryland.

Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia. 

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