Racquel Miller Graham hasn’t forgotten “Johnny,” an emotionally troubled 10-year-old whose sneakers and self-esteem had been grounded – worn down by the harshness of life.
“He was so earthbound,” she recalls. “Wouldn’t pick his feet off the floor. Couldn’t jump. He was like this little mouse of a kid who literally clung to the earth, terrified of the world around him.”
Movement-based activities lifted much more than his spirits. “The day he climbed to the top of the rope was a really big day,” says Graham. “He conquered all of his fears. He actually learned to jump – got his feet off the ground. Just really blossomed.”
Now a certified yoga instructor at Columbus, Ohio’s Center for Wholeness, Graham spent 12 years as a movement therapist, working with emotionally disturbed children. As a result, she’s never surprised by the way special needs kids respond to complementary treatments – everything from horseback riding, water exercise and yoga to art, music and dance.
“We are physical beings, first and foremost,” Graham says. “Children learn about the world first through their physical bodies.”
Today, old-fashioned recreation and play time, skillfully packaged and managed, can have a dramatic impact on children facing all sorts of heath-related challenges.
In these highly creative yet structured worlds, asthmatics calm their spastic, labored breathing to music’s rhythmic melodies; quadriplegics ride high on horseback, imagining how it might feel to walk; juvenile arthritis sufferers leap through pools like frogs on lily pads, playfully exercising their stiff, aching joints.
“Whether climbing a rope or learning to jump, kids discover they can trust their own bodies – for example, kids whose boundaries have been violated by abuse,” Graham says. “They learn that their body is their own territory. Being able to trust themselves and deal with their fears is huge.”
Yoga, Dance Improve Movement
Increasingly, yoga and dance are empowering kids with valuable, therapeutic techniques for everything from chronic pain management (arthritis) and enhanced focus (ADD) to improved strength, coordination and flexibility (cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy).
“They also increase lung capacity, calm the nervous system and strengthen muscles, and a lot of kids have asthma these days,” says Angela Nicolosi, a certified yoga instructor and licensed professional clinical counselor. “One of the really nice things, whether it’s yoga or dance, is that it takes the experience out of the realm of physical therapy and makes it a fun thing. It’s not about ‘horrifying’ exercises, because you’re moving, but it’s fun. It also normalizes things for them. If they’re handicapped, well, other kids take yoga and dance, too. It’s no longer a case of ‘I have to go to my special therapy.'”
Among children with neurological disease, compromised movement or cognitive impairment, experts say, yoga and dance improve balance, smooth spastic muscles and strengthen short-term memory.
“If you walk into a bookstore today, yoga’s generally in the medical section or alternative therapy section, not the ‘woo-woo’ section,” adds Nicolosi, a Fellow in the American Academy of Pain Management. “It’s finally considered a science – a form of wellness management.”
Unlike adult classes, yoga for children takes a more creative approached designed for shorter attention spans. Kids “become” a tree, “blossom” like a flower or “creep” like a crocodile.
“I remember one kid, a teenager, who was just really obnoxious, mouthy and arrogant,” Graham says. “He’d want to come to yoga class to feel calm. He’d ask, ‘Are we doing yoga today?’ which was actually pretty remarkable. The thing is, he could let down all of his defenses and just be in this safe place that we created in yoga class. From my experience with emotionally disturbed kids, I’ve found that when they get a chance to experience success in the physical environment, it begins to translate into other areas.”
Horses Initiate Trust
Laura Smith, program manager at Columbus, Ohio-based Recreation Unlimited, knows firsthand the empowering nature of complementary activities – everything from pool buoyancy for quadriplegics (which allows physical movement not otherwise possible) to equine assisted therapy for emotionally challenged youths.
“Sitting on a horse [for an autistic child] is more of an extension of your own body than pet therapy, which involves [interacting with] something on the outside,” Smith says. “Sitting on a horse is also like an extension of your own legs. People who generally use a wheelchair can get a sense of the gait of the horse, a sense of balance, as they move back and forth.”
Because they are highly intuitive animals, horses bolster trust, self-esteem and even personal hygiene among special needs kids.
“It’s about responsibility, follow-through,” Nicolosi says. “There are lots of adults out there who have diabetes and haven’t taken care of themselves, and lost a leg as a result. If a kid’s ill and learns to take care of an animal, there’s also a good chance that he’ll learn to respect and take care of himself more, too.”
At Recreation Unlimited, campers build coordination, balance, strength and self-esteem through year-round activities as diverse as their ailments – from rope climbing and canoeing to fishing, arts and crafts and more traditional activities like archery, soccer and softball.
“A lot of it is being outside themselves and doing a lot of self-movement,” Smith says. “I’ve had people remark, ‘Oh, you mean you got him up off the couch?’ I say, ‘Not only is he up off the couch, but he’s walking from archery to tree climb to the lake.'”
Music ‘Essential to Health’
If we march to the beat of a different drummer, Sally Hough thinks she knows why. “We all resonate and vibrate differently,” says Hough, a veteran music therapist. In fact, our individual rhythms and melodies are as unique as fingerprints.
“There’s never been a culture on earth, anywhere, that didn’t develop music,” Hough says. “There’s a real big debate as to whether music is as essential to health as breathing.”
Executive director of the Columbus Music Therapy Center and president of the Institute for Music and Human Potential, Hough marvels at the benefits of music therapy, particularly for children with autism, asthma, cerebral palsy, William’s syndrome, Rhet’s syndrome and Down syndrome.
“One of the biggest things these kids need is a sensory-based education,” Hough says. “Music is a ‘whole-brain’ thing, and that’s what’s really important – the big difference between music and other therapies.”
Special needs individuals respond to music for several reasons. Its structured, orderly rhythms help reset internal clocks that often run too fast or too slow, while its chords and melodies tap into limbic systems otherwise overwhelmed by society’s noise pollution.
“When a child is engaged in rhythm, we’re putting that [innate] internal structure into them that most kids develop over time naturally,” says Hough. “In ADD children, that rhythm is very fast and needs to be slowed down a bit. With autistic kids, it needs speeded up. Some like minor chords better than major. I get a blueprint of each child – what melodies that child enjoys – and develop it into a communication pattern between us. Pretty soon, we’re talking back and forth, non-verbally.”
A Wittenberg and Southern Methodist University graduate, Hough describes music therapy as a neurological procedure culled from 200 years of outcome-based, scientific research.
“There’s overwhelming scientific evidence now, for example, that if you use music during surgery, patients need 50 percent less anesthesia,” she says. “Stroke patients who are learning to walk again benefit from rhythmic auditory training. We’ve found that if you combine this rhythmic beat with their physical therapy, there’s a 40 percent increase in their walking ability. The beat helps retrain the part of the brain that had the stroke, that internal rhythm needed to walk.”
Like jogging, music triggers physiological, chemical, neurological and hormonal changes. Parkinson’s patients improve swallowing and articulation through singing, chanting and vocalization. Asthmatics clear their lungs by blowing into instruments.
“The biggest thing we’ve had to overcome with our profession is that, while everyone knows music is entertainment, they don’t realize it’s also therapeutic and absolutely essential for health,” Hough says.
The arts are equally effective as diagnostic tools. “Kids are not made to sit in the therapy room and say, ‘You know, I feel depressed today,'” Nicolosi says. “But you might ask them to bring in their music. I’m a chronic pain specialist, and I can tell you, too, that there’s a high correlation between kids drawing their pain and an accurate diagnosis. Art also helps kids manage their pain. We can use pictures of it and visualize it being different. If pain is a red knife stabbing into their head, perhaps we change that knife to a different color, and turn it into a sponge.”