Jessica was 4 years old when she was diagnosed with autism, the neurological disorder that affects 400,000 people in the United States, according to Autism Society of America.
The Potomac Heights Elementary School first-grader is classified as "high functioning," according to her mother. The little girl with bright brown eyes has the support of instructional assistants at school. She reads at a 9-year-old level, and while her mother was interviewed for this article, she happily watched a "Winnie the Pooh" video, then popped in a Super Mario Brothers video game.
In July, Jessica and other local children participated in a 10-day training program. Terrie Silverman, a speech pathologist, behavioral therapist and Auditory Integration Training practitioner, from The Virginia Foundation for the Exceptional Child and Adolescent in Richmond, Va., conducted the 10 days of training. Silverman has been practicing Auditory Integration Training for six years and says she has seen some amazing results.
Specifically designed equipment modifies music heard through headphones in twice daily 30-minute sessions. Recordings by pop artists such as Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, Carly Simon and Fleetwood Mac are included because they meet requirements of having a wide range of frequencies and a good beat.
Listening to the music on the training equipment made Sue Brown dizzy. Teresa Lois, whose children, Joshua, almost 7, and 8-year-old Maeghan, also participated in the Hagerstown training sessions, said it nauseated her. But what sounds distorted to Brown, Lois and Silverman appears to be soothing to the training participants, according to Silverman.
No one is sure how or why the training works.
"We're very young in understanding this," Silverman said.
Training is not limited to children, she said. Her own college-age daughter, who has auditory retention difficulties, has benefited.
Silverman had cautioned parents that seeing change can be a long-term process. Lois is taking a wait and see attitude with Joshua, who has autism. During and immediately after the AIT, Lois saw a significant increase in her son's temper tantrums. But she believes something has changed with his hearing. He's been testing things out, turning faucets and fan switches on and off. Noises, such as loading dishes into the dishwasher and thunder, haven't bothered him.
Changes in her daughter, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, are dramatic. A week after the AIT sessions, Lois stopped giving Maeghan medications she had been on since 1994. She seems to be able to focus better, Lois said. "She's just grown up. She's more pleasant to be around."
Lois said she is "big into research" about what might help her children.
"I don't go with every whim," she said.
Despite the expense - it cost local families $1,000 to $1,200 per child and was not covered by health insurance - Lois says she's glad she had the training for her kids. Although she's being cautious about its effects, she believes it was a good experience.