Severe neonatal jaundice and “autism”

At least twice a week, I see or speak to parents of clients who have a neurodevelopmental diagnosis, such as Autism, ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder or Dyspraxia, but who were given phototherapy to treat severe jaundice as a newborn.

When I hear that jaundice may have played a role in their journey to me, my ears prick up: I’m also the mother of a child who was also a severely jaundiced baby, and the reason why I retrained in neuroplasticity in the first place.

Those who have followed my work for a while may even remember me offering free sessions to those with this history a couple of years back.

The story is always the same: as babies, this profile had difficulties feeding, very poor sleep, high pitched crying, arched neck/back, is hypermobile, was late with crawling and walking, was late to talk and often presents with sensory processing difficulties, motor coordination difficulties and specific learning difficulties (dyspraxia, dyslexia) – and yet these are always incredibly intelligent children, but in a very non-linear way.

Jaundice is often the result of a traumatic birth – often a lengthy forceps or ventouse delivery, and very often following a failed induction. If the head is badly bruised, it can cause excess red blood cell destruction and bilirubin formation. Because the liver, which normally processes and flushes bilirubin out, is not fully developed in newborn babies, especially those under 38 weeks gestation, there can be a build up of bilirubin, which causes a yellowy appearance: jaundice.

Above a certain threshold, jaundice causes damage to the central nervous system, and neuropathy of the hippocampus (learning, memory and spatial awareness) and basal ganglia (motor control, motor learning, executive functions and behaviors, and emotions). AKA: damage to these areas of the brain can LOOK LIKE “autism” – but it’s not autism: it’s a form of cerebral palsy.

The temporal form of Auditory Processing Disorder can be caused by kernicterus. This form of APD means that a person has problems processing the gaps between words or processing speech. This also causes very slow processing speed, which can also lead to being misdiagnosed with ADHD, Autism, you name it… Temporal auditory processing disorder also underlies most cases of dyslexia (but not everyone with dyslexia is affected by kernicterus, just to be clear).

And yet the NHS website does not mention botched assisted deliveries as a potential cause of severe jaundice. Is this deliberate? After all, it’s a lot cheaper to diagnose autism and parent blame than admit negligence.

Working with Kernicterus children, especially those with milder cases, especially with tactile stimulation reflex integration, the Anat Baniel method with an experienced practitioner (preferably someone who has several years of Feldenkrais experience too), or rhythmic movement training, can be extremely beneficial, as we can help develop new synapses. We need to focus on neurogenesis with these children, due to the fact that excess bilirubin has damaged areas of the brain.

Kernicterus children have pretty much a full range of active primitive reflexes – including a poorly developed (therefore strongly retained Moro), and significant spinal and ATNR, as well as TLR and STNR (very low muscle tone). Working with the Safe and Sound Protocol will also help anyone who had a traumatic birth to feel safe in the world, and SSP will almost always improve communication.

Rhythm and movement are fantastic for temporal auditory processing disorder, so encourage your child to sing, clap rhythms or learn to play an instrument. The Unyte-iLs Focus Programme is a wonderful home-based programme that has profound effects on children with kernicterus too, also speaking from personal experience. In fact, my kiddo started picking out tunes on the piano and playing by ear when he’d done a couple of months of iLs Focus. Focus incorporates visual and auditory processing with proprioception and visual integration – and movement. It’s very clever and very effective – but requires massive patience and commitment from both you and your child.

The other helpful intervention that you can do for yourself is physical play: encouraging your baby/toddler to explore – NOT SIT ON A SCREEN. They need a chance to develop muscles as much as possible of their own volition – not using baby walkers or any of those other expensive props! A trip to the park is therapy enough for a toddler – especially if there are swings, a roundabout and something to climb on.

Frequency, intensity and duration of intervention is of paramount importance for healthy myelination, as well as working with professionals who understand that this is NOT autism, and will therefore take a lot more patience and thinking outside the box to make steady progress.

With patience and co-regulation, it is possible to achieve a lot see positive change in a child affected by kernicterus, but my main reason for writing today’s post is to raise awareness of what kernicterus is (clinical negligence), and the fact that it is NOT autism. I also wanted people to be aware of this fact, so that you don’t go throwing money at “autism” when, in fact, we’re dealing with brain damage caused by clinical negligence, rather than a different neurotype.


As a post-script, JMW Solicitors in Manchester specialises in Kernicterus claims on a no-win, no-fee basis.

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