Creative Loafing Interview ~ January 23, 1988 By Steven Beeber
A local chiropractor says he can help children with learning disabilities. But some say all the benefits might be in his patients’ heads.
Stephen Fellows is an eight-year-old third grader at Westchester Elementary School in Decatur. Three years ago, Stephen’s mother Leslie began to notice that her son had a problem with writing. He would print certain letters backwards and sometimes omit words. Later, she noticed he also had a problem with reading. He would skip over certain words and could barely make it through a page of his grade school reader.
Concerned that her son might be suffering from some form of learning disability, Leslie took Stephen to Emory University where he was tested by a team of psychologists. Their finding: Stephen was indeed suffering from two forms of learning disabilities. He had a “spatial problem” which made it difficult to focus on words and to write letters correctly, and he had a problem with concentration.
Relieved to at least know what her son’s problem was, Leslie then asked the psychologists what they could do to help Stephen. She was shocked by their response.
“They said they couldn’t do a thing,” Leslie says. “I spent all of that money and they had no recommendation whatsoever. They just said I would have to learn to live with it.”
For a time, Leslie accepted the psychologists’ recommendation because she didn’t know what else to do. But when she heard about a local chiropractor who was offering help for people with learning disabilities, she leaped at the chance to do something for her son.
When Leslie first took Stephen to The Center for Life on Manchester Street, off Cheshire Bridge Road, she knew they were in a place quite different from Emory University. Rather than harried doctors running after pages and taking elevators from floor to floor, the staff here looked almost as if there were relaxing in a small suburban home. They were friendly and amiable and relaxed.
From the start, that made much of the difference to Leslie.
“I was so impressed with the whole approach,” says Leslie. “When Dr. Kelly sat down with Stephen, it was clear he had something special, that he could get down on a child’s level and really relate. I think he, more than anyone, helped Stephen learn that he had a problem and that he shouldn’t be ashamed to deal with it.”
But Leslie emphasizes that Kelly got her son to do more than just relax. He got results. Before his first visit to the Center for Life, Stephen Fellows had trouble paying attention in class, turned letters around and could barely read. A month later, he was an attentive student who enjoyed reading for pleasure and had almost no trouble writing. He was even receiving raves from his teacher.
“I am not sure why it works,” says Leslie Fellows. “But I know it does. And in the end, that’s what counts.”
Symptoms or disease?
The method Dr. Kelly uses is something he calls Neural Organization Technique (NOT). An outgrowth of applied kinesiology-the study of body motion, position, and function.-NOT is unique from most chiropractic techniques in that it emphasizes realigning bones in the skull as well as bones in the spine.
Kelly learned NOT in 1983 from the man who developed it, a Brooklyn-based chiropractor named Carl Ferreri. Ferreri claims he can cure dyslexia, stop bed wetting, and successfully treat people with Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning disabilities through the technique he developed back in the late 70s.
“Most people don’t realize it, but there are over 22 separate bones in the skull,” says Kelly. “The jagged lines you see in skulls are actually fissures which connect these separate bones.”
While movements of these bones is almost unnoticeable in adults, Kelly says that in newborns it occurs to a greater extent. This movement is the key to NOT. As Kelly describes it, newborn babies sometimes suffer realignments in the cranium that place pressure on the brain. Often this occurs during delivery, especially when forceps are used, or through slight injuries to the head. Other times, the child may be born with the problem.
Because of this pressure on the brain, normal functions suffer interference. Thus, the unexplained problem of dyslexia.
By realigning these bones through a series of massages, Kelly says he is able to help alleviate the pressure and create a more balanced system.
In addition to using NOT, Kelly looks at the diet of his patient. He says that poor diet can often result in hyperactivity or allergies that interfere with normal though processes.
Finally, Kelly focuses on increasing motor control and coordination, particularly in the eyes, where he claims many people with learning disabilities have a problem.
The process can take anywhere from one to 10 visits to the Center for Life, Kelly says. The first visit usually costs $100 to $180, while the rest are usually about $75 a piece.
But Dr. Kenneth Walker, professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, is skeptical.
“In small infants, the bones can be moved,” says Walker. “But after about a year, the fissures grow together and can be moved no longer. I don’t know of his technique, but I don’t see how it can claim to readjust the skull past the first year.”
Another who is doubtful is Harry Dangel, Georgia State University associate professor of Special Education.
“Our field has a history of people who have the answers,” says Dangel. “In the early 70s there was a group in Atlanta that advanced the Creeping/Crawling theory. This said that the individual with a learning disability had missed some developmental stage and needed to reenact it. It was called the Creeping/Crawling theory because the emphasis was on reenacting the early developmental years of crawling through exercises that simulated these actions.”
While Dangel says he is not familiar with NOT, he does say that most of Kelly’s other approaches have also been tried in the past and apparently disproven. He says while a good deal of literature was written on treating learning disabilities through diet and vitamin therapy, controlled experiments have not supported such therapies. He also says that in 1969 a national organization of opthamologists, optometrists and learning disability specialists found that children with learning disabilities do not have any higher propensity toward eye problems than normal children.
Dangel says if there are any benefits from Kelly’s technique, it is probably because it addresses secondary problems-usually psychological-that perhaps result from learning disabilities. For example, if a child has grown up with a learning disability he may develop a feeling of inferiority and even become physically awkward. Developing motor coordination may alleviate this problem and so help him concentrate more on his studies.
Even more important, the treatment may have the proverbial placebo effect, reducing tension that can result from feelings of inferiority concerning a learning disability. In a similar vein, it can also alleviate emotional problems which might affect concentration.
For instance, Stephen Fellows’ teacher, Beverly Cockerham, says that while Stephen has definitely been doing better during the past few months, she feels that it is more a matter of attitude adjustment than cranial adjustment.
“He used to have a short attention span and now he seems to have settled down more,” Cockerham says. “It seemed to me he just had a lot of things on his mind, emotional things. I’ve been teaching for 12 years and I usually can recognize children with learning disabilities and I didn’t think he had one. But of course, I may be wrong.”
Shooting in the dark
Indeed she may-and through no fault of her own. The study and treatment of learning disabilities is still in the early stages of development in Georgia, says Harry Dangel. In 1970, there were only eight certified teachers in Georgia in the area of learning disabilities. Today, there are between 1,400 and 1,500.
The problem of learning disabilities is still so little understood even by specialists that it is difficult to say just what chiropractors like Kelly may be treating.
“It is a very nebulous problem,” says Dangel. “Children with learning disabilities can fall into all kinds of categories. They may be suffering from emotional problems or they may simply need more work in one area. Others may have average or slightly below average intelligence that keeps them back. The geniuses like Einstein or Rockefeller who seem to have a problem in just one area are the rare exception. Really, the only common characteristic with ‘ld’ kids is that they have nothing in common.”
In a similar vein, the only thing learning-disabled kids who go to chiropractors seem to have in common is a relatively fair success rate. Stories such as Stephen Fellows’ don’t exactly abound, but there are enough cases to make one take notice.
For instance, Richley Phair, a 16-year-old at Wheeler High School, was making Ds and Fs most of his life. Although his mother Rochel claims he was reading Shakespeare by the fourth grade, she said Richley found it almost impossible to write. Since visiting Dr. Kelly, however, Richley has not only begun passing classes with ease-he has started writing letters to his family and friends, something he could never do before.
Helen Smathers, a learning disability teacher in the Dawson County Middle School, became so frustrated with a student named Bob (not his real name) that she paid for him to visit a Buckhead chiropractor who also practices NOT. Within weeks, Bob’s attitude dramatically changed, says Smathers, and as a result his grades went from Fs and Ds to Cs. Moreover, Bob’s mother says that her son even acquired a better sense of direction and was able to drive himself around town without getting lost, something he was almost incapable of doing before.
As Buckhead psychologist Sunaina Jain, who once treated Richley Phair, says, “ I remember a woman who was seeing me who had never gotten past a second-grade education and thought she would stay that way for life. By the time we were done she had graduated from college because she had decided she could do so. In many of these cases, the first step toward recovery might be the decision that recovery is possible.”
In other words, when it comes to the mysterious world of learning disabilities, chiropractors may not be creating the magic of mind over matter. But they may be helping some people achieve the benefit of mind over mind.