Kristian Stachura was a mad -- and defiant -- 7-year-old. He refused to do homework. Teachers couldn't control the Clovis youngster. Discipline, medication and psychotherapy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder didn't help.
But since enrolling at a Clovis storefront center for children with brain disorders and learning disabilities, Kristian's anger is gone.
The transformation, said Kristian's mother, Stephanie Stachura, is "like night and day."
Brain Balance Achievement Centers say they can help children with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome and other disorders and learning disabilities.
The centers' nonmedical treatment is based on the theory that an imbalance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain is the root cause of disorders and learning difficulties.
Children from as far as 200 miles away come for treatment at the Clovis center.
The medical community, however, isn't convinced.
Doctors say there is no proof that disorders such as ADHD and autism have a single cause, or that one therapy works.
Robert Hendren, who ran a neurodevelopmental research center at the University of California at Davis for eight years, said there is no evidence that a brain imbalance is the sole cause of neurological disorders. Such treatment is "perhaps a bit simplistic," said Hendren, now director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco.
The 12-week program isn't cheap. It costs $6,000 -- with a 10% discount if paid in full upfront -- to assess a child and develop a program to address nutritional, motor, sensory and cognitive weaknesses. Brain Balance works with children from kindergarten through high school.
The Clovis center, at Willow and Herndon avenues, opened in June and has 11 children enrolled. It's one of three recently opened in Northern California. Nationwide there are about 50 centers.
Brain Balance isn't the only learning program providing help to children with brain disorders and learning disabilities -- but it's one of the newest in the central San Joaquin Valley. A LearningRX center, for example, opened two years ago on Fort Washington Road. The center helps adults as well as children who have learning disabilities.
Nationwide, one in 110 children have autism or a similar disorder. And rates of ADHD are increasing. Nearly 10% of school-age children have an ADHD diagnosis, up from 7.8% in 2003, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brain Balance Program founder Robert Melillo said he has spent the past 17 years researching brain development in children. The New York chiropractor is author of "Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders."
He says ADHD, autism and learning disabilities are caused by a disconnection between the two sides of the brain that affects children's ability to learn. Problems with motor coordination, balance, muscle tone, sensory processing issues, as well as even immune problems and dietary issues can be explained by the imbalance, he says.
But physicians say it's not that clear-cut.
Most psychiatrists believe brain disorders shouldn't be lumped together, said Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director at the Children's Health Council, a Palo Alto diagnostic and treatment center for children and adolescents with developmental and behavioral problems.
At the Brain Balance centers, the program is tailored to each child, said Janeil Swarthout, co-owner and director of the Clovis center. They are assessed to determine sensory, motor skill and brain functions that need strengthening, as well as nutritional needs, she said.
Swarthout, who has a doctorate in cultural mythology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, said she knows there is scientific skepticism of the program.
But she and husband Scott Swarthout, a chiropractor, decided to open the Clovis center after the techniques helped her autistic nephew. He had stopped speaking and was withdrawing from the world, she said, but "now he's testing in a normal range in all areas. That was enough to be extremely persuasive for me."
Parents bringing children for sessions to the Clovis center last week gave similar testimonials.
"I've seen a definite change in him," Jennifer Allison said of her 10-year-old son, Jeryd Ward. Allison and husband Ervin Allison drive from Palmdale in Southern California three times a week so Jeryd can receive help for ADHD.
Doctors had increased medications twice to control Jeryd's impulsiveness, aggression and hyperactivity, Jennifer Allison said. He no longer needs the drugs, she said.
Likewise, Kristian Stachura no longer needs ADHD medication, Rod Stiles said of his girlfriend's son. Stiles brought Kristian to the center for his appointment.
Stephanie Stachura adopted Kristian from a Russian orphanage when he was a toddler. Last year, he spent the first 13 days of first grade sitting in the principal's office, said Stiles, 44, of Clovis. But Kristian attended summer school without any behavior problems and is "a totally different kid."
Still being tested
Testimonials, however, don't have the clout of controlled trials that convince scientists of a treatment's effectiveness.
Melillo said a controlled study is under way. He also is working with labs to scan brains of children with autism before and after treatment.
There is evidence supporting the Brain Balance program in a study that appeared in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health last year.
The study, which was not a controlled test, involved 60 children diagnosed with ADHD randomly selected from two centers, Melillo said. Parents filled out behavior checklists before the program and the children were given standardized academic tests. At the end of 12 weeks, the children were re-evaluated.
Eighty-two percent no longer met the criteria for ADHD, Melillo said. And 100% showed improvement, with 85% having significant improvement. About 60% improved at least two grade levels in multiple academic areas and 35% improved by four grade levels or more, he said.
Hendren and Elliott said they were not familiar with the study. The results sound dramatic, they said. But Elliott said he is skeptical about studies with 100% response rates.
And it would be important to know whether the improvements are maintained, Elliott said. "Lots of things have been shown to help kids with ADHD in the short run," he said.
The doctors said they understand parents' desire to try alternative treatments, but they should be cautious and investigate. And the best way is to look for the results of random controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals.
That said, some parents just want to get help, Hendren said. He doesn't dissuade those who want to try untested therapies, as long as they don't sound dangerous.
If there is a chance a treatment could help Kristian, Stiles said he is willing to try it: "You write a check with hope."