Could b-Calm Help Your Child?
b-Calm, an ADHD-friendly product, claims to help reduce outbursts and distraction, while improving focus, writing, and math comprehension when used by children with autism disorders and/or attention deficit in a classroom setting. Does it work?
An MP3 player loaded with specially developed audio tracks, b-Calm is an “audio sedation” system designed to help kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or autism screen out sounds that can cause distraction, induce stress, and adversely affect social and academic performance. To do so, the tracks combine two types of sounds: live recordings of nature sounds and white noise. When listening to b-Calm at low volumes in the classroom, students can converse and interact with teachers and other students. Higher volumes help cover up voices and noise, reduce distractions in the classroom, and diminish a child’s likelihood of experiencing sensory overload in a loud setting, such as a school gym.
Originally invented by a dentist trying to soothe an autistic patient bothered by the loud noises in his office, it was later suggested that with modifications the device could help ADHD and/or autistic children in non-dental settings. According to the b-Calm website, common results of using the product include a reduction in outbursts from kids on the autism spectrum, a reduction in distraction for students with ADHD, and improvements in classroom focus, writing, and math comprehension. Teachers who used the product in initial trials supported these claims.
b-Calm Gets Tested in the Classroom
In 2009, b-Calm teamed up with eight special education teachers around the state of Iowa to test the product in the classroom (offering free b-Calm sets but no funding). Participating teachers observed elementary school kids on the autism spectrum, as well as those with ADHD. They took note of their students’ purposes for using b-Calm (trouble with concentration, math, reading, relaxation, independent work, and test taking were among the reasons) and the number of times and duration for which b-Calm was used. Teachers rated b-Calm’s effectiveness on a 0-to-5 scale, with 5 as the most effective. With 17 evaluations, the average rating given to the product was a 4.4.
Jo Aukes, a special education teacher in Ankeny, Iowa, was among the first group of teachers to test the device in the classroom. She formally evaluated the device’s efficacy with one student, and she chose to use it with several others. Aukes has seen some startling results: One student scored 20 to 40 percent on a reading test without the device and 70 to 80 percent with it. Another student doubled his score on a three-minute writing test when using b-Calm.
Aukes observed b-Calm provide relief in nonacademic arenas as well. A girl with autism, who, day after day, had been too overwhelmed to eat, to the point of noticeable weight loss, ate her entire lunch during the first use. Noticing how b-Calm helped the student, one of her peers suggested the girl be allowed to use the device in the gym, where she’d also been suffering from overstimulation. b-Calm helped there, according to Aukes. “The student does not usually participate in P.E. due to the loud noise and amount of organized chaos … [She] was able to engage more in playing the games with her classmates… She was able to look like she was part of the group today,” Aukes wrote in her b-Calm evaluation.
An elementary school teacher at the time of the trials, Aukes now teaches middle school. She introduced teachers and students to the use of b-Calm there and uses it with students to this day. Aukes notes that because b-Calm is a typical MP3 player, it’s discreet. When a child wears it, she looks like a “normal” kid. She said, “I appreciate having something like b-Calm to offer to students and parents to help students adapt and be independent.”
In addition to the field trials, faculty and graduate students in the education department at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) are conducting formal research studies on the product. In an initial study completed over a four-week period in the fall of 2009, a team of two special education graduate students tested two prekindergarten students, both of whom had been identified by teachers as struggling to focus and as being easily distracted, in a segregated special education classroom. Baseline measures showed the students maintained engagement in pre-literacy and fine motor activities 20 to 40 percent of the time. With the use of the b-Calm, the students’ engagement increased to 50 to 75 percent. A neurotypical preschool student is expected to be engaged 75 percent of the time.
Researchers at UNI are planning further studies. A study of b-Calm’s efficacy in helping individuals with sensory challenges to find relief from noise-induced stress in life situations outside of educational settings — at home, in restaurants, and at other community events — will begin in the near future.
Want to test b-Calm with an ADHD or autistic student? b-Calm provided a unit to the Assistive Technology Lending Library in nearly every state in the U.S., so teachers who are interested in testing the device should contact that entity in their state.
The Science Behind the b-Calm Product Claims
White noise is incorporated in the b-Calm audio tracks, according to Curtis Carroll, a mechanical engineer and former member of the b-Calm team, because research suggests it is beneficial for ADHD children. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines found that contrary to the conventional wisdom that noise is disruptive to brain functioning, “a certain amount of noise can benefit performance” — specifically for those with low dopamine levels, including children with ADHD. In the study, which compared the performance of a control group (non- ADHD students) to students with ADHD on a series of tasks in the presence or absence of white noise, the noise “exerted a positive effect on cognitive performance for the ADHD group and deteriorated performance for the control group, indicating that ADHD subjects need more noise … for optimal cognitive performance,” according to the study’s authors.
The second type of sound contained in b-Calm, recordings from nature, has been added for aesthetic reasons and in the hope that ADHD and autistic children might benefit from it as researchers have found that nature recordings help dementia patients. In his white paper, Noise Control and Positive Acoustic Reinforcement: A Simple Intervention for ADHD and ASD Students, Carroll cites research that suggests dementia patients prone to disruptive vocalizations produced fewer outbursts when listening to either “gentle ocean” or “mountain stream” recordings on a headset. Another study, published in a 2004 issue of Focus: The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, found that white noise and/or nature sounds decreased stress and agitation among elderly dementia patients.
Although he has not used b-Calm or recommended it for his patients, ADDitude advisory board member, prominent psychiatrist, and ADHD expert Edward Hallowell, M.D., believes that the use of music and sound is an untapped resource and an area he predicts is set to explode onto the ADHD and autism treatment scenes. Upon hearing the product’s history — created for an autistic child who couldn’t tolerate dentist visits — Dr. Hallowell said, “That is how great discoveries are made: by accident.” He cited another sound-based technology, Integrated Listening System, which is purported to exercise neural systems through sound and movement programs, as showing similar promise, and he said about b-Calm, “As professionals, it’s our job to be open to new ideas. If it’s safe and legal, we should give it a try.”