An Interview with Dr. Cheri Florance: The Rise in Autism-Or Not?

Mar 7, 2013 by

Dr. Cheri Florance

By Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Dr. Florance, first of all, could you tell us about your education and experiences with the condition we call “autism”.

In 7th grade, I was working as a teaching assistant at a dance school. I would take the children who were not following group instructions to the basement and re-teach them. Along came a blind boy and I was asked to teach him to tap. We use our eyes to model the teacher in dance. As a 14 year old, I figured out a way to teach him by sound, instead of sight.

As an undergraduate, I took a class in speech and hearing disorders. For one paper, I was told to research “childhood aphasia.” I went to the library but forgot the word and didn’t have my notes with me. I knew it was something that started with an “A,” so I began reading on “autism” and became intrigued by the stories of children who seemed locked away in their own little world, unable to communicate or to be reached. I went on to get a double doctorate in speech and hearing science and cognitive psychology and completed 5 years of post doctoral fellowship, a career development award from The National Institutes of health and did a 2 year independent study in Child Psychiatry with Dr. Dennis Cantwell.

And so, when my third child, Whitney was diagnosed with autism – and also deafness and mental retardation – it was like I had been preparing to be Whitney’s mother my whole life.

By the time Whitney was two, I realized he certainly wasn’t stupid! In fact, I could tell he was exceedingly bright. One night when he was two, we were staying at a hotel, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by the police. Whitney had pulled apart the entertainment center in the room, unlocked the door to the hallway, and found his way down the elevator to the hotel kitchen. He figured out how to open the refrigerator, fed himself, took off all his clothes, and fell asleep.

I began to put two and two together – another time, this time at home, Whitney got up again in the middle of the night and decided he was hungry.

At first, all I noticed was the mess of pancake syrup, milk, Cheerios and other assorted foodstuffs mixed in a large pile and strewn all over the kitchen floor. How Whitney even managed to reach some of the items in the supposedly “child proof” kitchen was mystery, but everything became crystal clear when I looked in the oven.

Sitting in the (fortunately unlit) oven was a bowl. In the bowl, were the contents of an empty cake mix box, some water, and three unbroken eggs. It was the three eggs that told the story. They were unbroken – just like the pictures on the box of cake mix! Whitney was problem-solving! He was thinking! He had seen the picture on the box and recreated it exactly, but when nothing happened after that, when it didn’t turned out like he planned, when there was no cake, he became frustrated and angry and simply made his own “breakfast” all over the floor.

Whitney clearly had a mind capable of reason, determination, problem-solving and goal-achieving – but in a visual manner. What he lacked was a language to communicate his desires to the outside world. He was thinking in pictures, not words!

2) Now, can we discuss what appears to be a significant rise in autism- is it due to pesticides, parents taking drugs, thimerosol in the Measles, Mumps, Rubella virus or something else?

Something Else.

If you study the work of Dr. Dennis Cantwell, a world-renowned child and adult psychiatrist from UCLA, you will discover a book called Psychiatric and Developmental Disorders in Children with Communication Disorders (by Cantwell and Baker).

Dr Cantwell believed that the increase in identified autism was because of silo diagnosis. Each professional uses a protocol specific to their academic home. He found that many psychiatric diseases were being misdiagnosed. He found about 25 percent of preschoolers present with communication disorders that can often appear as behavior or mental health problems.

In 14,000-plus clients I have evaluated in the past 16 years, visual thinkers with communication disorders have been clearly underdiagnosed. The first question I ask is: Are there visual thinkers in the family tree, if there are artists, physicians, dentists, architects, engineers, landscapers, fashion designers, computer wizards, or builders, then we have a good chance a child with language and behavior problems come from an over-working visual brain.

In my population, the language disorders have not been recognized as the primary problem. When that happens, it is not uncommon to see onset of depression, anxiety, frustration, withdrawal or temper tantrums. Then the symptoms of the communication disorder can look like imitation autism.

3.) I have had individuals indicate to me, that a great many diagnoses are simply incorrect – that parents prefer “pervasive developmental delay” or even “mental retardation” or “intellectual deficiency” as a diagnosis. How confident are we in the actual diagnosis of autism?

I am trained to recognize the symptoms of autism, but to take this a step further. After I find out about the extent of visual thinkers in the family tree, then I study 50 symptoms that characterize a visual thinker with a communication disorder. That creates the subjective component of empiric observation from parents, teachers and professionals. Next, I examine objective testing of visual and verbal attention-memory-processing to see if the objective test results explain the subjective symptoms.

If the two agree, then we continue to follow preferred practice patterns from The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the international Classification of Disease, and the U.S. Office of Education, to determine prognostic predictors for improvement in the skill sets needed for human communication.

PDD, Asperger’s autism, ADD are mental health disorders. Communication disorders are impairments in auditory attention, verbal memory, and language processing: listening, speaking, reading, writing.

However, if you look at the symptoms listed in The Autism Society’s handbook for autism and compare these with the symptoms of language and communication disorders listed in the Ohio Handbook for the Identification, Evaluation, and Placement of Children with Language Problems – they are very much alike.

What distinguishes a Maverick from other disorders is the highly visual brain and a specific cluster of 50 communication-related symptoms. In addition, the very strong visual brain is always evident in family tree, and usually at least one of the parents works in a very visual occupation, such as engineering or medicine or architecture or art of some kind.

4) Why is there a higher incidence of autism among engineers, computer experts and physicians? Is it the brain, or the wiring of the brain?

We think of this as “Affluent Autism” which is an imitation autism.

Affluence means rich, abundant, copious. We think of the visual brain of these engineers, computer experts and physicians and a visually abundant, affluent brain, full of brain exuberance. Such great strength in the visual brain power can be measured at the 99th percentile in children and adult mavericks across the visual pathway. Because the visual brain is so well developed throughout the family tree, a child who shows imitation autism, can have such high, unharnessed visual thinking that a host of autistic behaviors can be present.

5) Where did you get this epidemiological data that engineers, computer experts and physicians have more children [i.e. diagnosed with ASD] than other “normal average adults”?

In addition to my own clinical experience over the past 40 years, there has also been mention of this clustering of symptoms in the news. Here are some examples, which were included with the recent press release:

1) http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/07/autism-and-wealth.html

2) http://autism.about.com/b/2010/01/06/autism-at-highest-rate-among-wealthy-white-college-educated.htm

3) http://alum.mit.edu/news/WhatMatters/Archive/200398?destination=node/17924

6) How does one go about proving the wiring [?] of the brain- is it CAT scan or MRI, or something else?

To measure change we follow best practice standards recommended by the U.S.

Office of Education and The American Speech Language and Hearing Association.

1. Changes in presentation of the chief complaint.

2. Changes from baseline symptom analysis as reported by parents, teachers, professionals and the client.

3. Changes on Objective standardized testing

4. Changes and skill mastery in training.

I also give away a free e-book on our web site (www.cheriflorance.com) that describes the five steps of brain engineering and what to expect. There’s also a series of videos on the web site in which I explain the five steps of brain engineering.

7) Now, can you help our readers differentiate between Asperger’s and Mild autism (if there is such a thing)?

Dr. Cantwell told me the most important issue in the diagnostic process is to determine the most “trainable skills”. In communication disorders, we look for several criteria to understand prognosis.

It is not so much “how mild” is the problem, but rather, what are the indicators of potential change.

Communication disorders can be quite devastating so I don’t think in severe, moderate or mild. I think in terms of prognosis.

I would also encourage your readers to go to my web site

(www.cheriflorance.com) and request free materials. We distribute an e-book about Autism and The Maverick Mind that specifically addresses the symptoms in Mavericks that mimic the symptoms of autism.

In addition, I offer a free initial consultation by phone in which I do an initial screening to determine if the problems the child – or adult – is experiencing and exhibiting might be related to an over-working visual brain. Our office number and email are on the web site, or readers can just fill out a form and someone will get in touch with them to arrange an appointment.

8) You seem to have established your own treatment for autism- tell us about this.

Again, it’s very important to make clear that my practice involves working with “Mavericks” – people who may present with autism, but have highly visual brains causing communication disorders. First we stop the antagonism between the two pathways, next we train the brain’s executive to manage the thinking and communication process and then we build the input processors of listen and read and the output processors of speak and write. We follow standards created by the U.S. Office of Education and the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association.

I custom build my programs based on daily progress. I develop a training program for parents and teachers to implement and then measure how much progress is made and the type of change.

By following the child’s mastery of skills, I can build a succession of steps toward the goals we selected at the initial evaluation.

And as I mentioned before, there is a series of videos on my web site

(www.cheriflorance.com) in which I explain the five steps of brain engineering, and how it works.

9) I read a few years back that Secretin has been successful in the treatment of autism. Is there any current research on this?

This is not my area of expertise.

10) I also read a few years back an article by Isabel Rapin I believe in which she reviewed some of the medications that while did not cure, assisted with the treatment and management of children with autism. Can you comment?

This is not my area of expertise.

10) Do you have a book or a manual with your “processing treatment”?

While my book Maverick Mind isn’t exactly a “how to” manual, it will take you through my training and experience and how I gradually developed a training program for my son Whitney, which I then began to apply to other clients, once I developed a method for identifying “Maverick Minds.” We have a study guide which we offer for free at my website that leads the reader to the research behind the steps of the programs.

We can send you e-books and videos links.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Your questions have been excellent and I would be happy to speak to you by phone to discuss anything further.

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