As much as many skeptics enjoy debunking the claims of many autism activists who say they’ve found a cause, a cure, or a deep-seated conspiracy, I find always find the wins to be bittersweet. Autism is a debilitating condition that causes families unknowable strife, and if I were in the shoes of some of these parents, I might be ignoring the same facts and figures for the sake of hope myself.
Then again, there are people like Sharon Ruben, people who for all intents and purposes seem to be solely out to make money not only on autistic children in general, but on their own children too. These people make a ruthless debunking of autism pseudoscience feel worthwhile.
Enter Lollipop Listening Therapy. When I followed the research rabbit-hole that opened up around this treatment that claims to enhance the communication abilities of children on the autism spectrum by “exercising the ear muscles” using specially adjusted Mozart recordings, oh, the things I found.
Ruben’s daughter Ashley was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at about 18 months of age. After the standard routes of speech and occupational therapy failed to improve her condition, Ruben enrolled her daughter in a listening program steeped in the Tomatis Method.
The Tomatis Method is a system established in the 1950s aimed at people with problems in listening and comprehension. It basically takes recorded sound, often classical music, and tweaks certain frequencies in a way they claim will train the brain and the ear muscles to listen and understand sound more effectively. This, like so many autism therapies, attempts to cure an entire condition by treating a single symptom. Just as autistic children often have digestive issues so sales of specialized diet programs flood autism conventions, and just as testosterone is correlated with an incidence of autism so quacks resort to chemical castration, autistic children have trouble interacting with the world, and therefore must not be able to listen correctly. The evidence for the Tomatis Method and sound therapy in general on a range of disorders is spotty at best — a recent review of present research found that most studies were faulty and the ones that weren’t either showed no benefit or showed a small benefit when using a questionable scoring system — and its track record for autism treatment is terrible.
(Woo-y and amusing sidenote: One of the researchers who has studied sound therapy in relation to autism, Dorinne Davis, advocates for the treatment to take another element into consideration: otoacoustic emissions (OAEs), which are said to be the noises produced by your hair cells, which its proponents claim affect the way you hear sounds. Going a step further down the woo-path is the “new science” of BioAcoustics(tm), another favorite of Davis, which claims that OAEs not only affect the way you hear, but affect the way your voice sounds, to the point that therapists can tell what ails you simply by listening to you talk. This video gives a perfect snapshot of the founder’s odd ideas and likely mental illness — one of my favorite lines: “I’d always had this very odd hearing and vocal abilities. I thought everybody could hear sounds and know what people were thinking and know what the plants were thinking.”)
Nevertheless, according to Ruben, her daughter made a miraculous recovery. This turned her and her daughter into media darlings, with a slew of magazine interviews, talk shows, and of course, the publishing of a book about their journey.
So your daughter is allegedly cured through the power of Mozart and now you’re famous. What do you do now? Profit, obviously. Lollipop Listening Therapy was born: a watered down, therapist-free version of the Tomatis Method you can use at home in a 24-CD set (or buy their specialized iPod! Don’t forget the bone-conducting headphones!) for the low, low price of…well, I don’t know. They make you call an 800 number to find out and I wasn’t brave enough. But they’re throwing around $100 in free “Mozart Bucks” towards the program’s purchase if you buy a starter kit, and I’m guessing this isn’t a half-off deal.
By the way, you might be wondering how Sharon Ruben is even qualified to administer this kind of therapy. It’s okay. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology. She also has a Master’s in Biotechnology Management, which is technically a business degree for running a lab. I feel perfectly confident that she is thoroughly trained in the science of buying test tubes. Wait, what were we talking about?
And what of the Tomatis Method, the therapy that supposedly cured her daughter of autism? The site fleetingly mentions it to give credit where credit is due, but in the numerous pictures of a smiling Ashley wearing headphones peppered throughout the site, Lollipop Listening Therapy is strongly suggested to have been her cure. The icing on the cake is this very badly edited version of her Today Show interview with Katie Couric displayed in the site’s sidebar, in which every mention of the word “Tomatis” has been hastily cut out. The full version of the video can be seen here. I mean, what are you supposed to do? Your kid was miraculously cured and you want to profit from it. If you give people all the information, they’ll pay the people who helped your daughter instead of paying you. What kind of unfair universe would we be living in?