Ryan Sbordone used to have trouble retaining new information, but with special therapy children like Ryan retain and comprehend new knowledge.
April 16, 2010
Ryan Sbordone used to have trouble retaining new information. His teachers would say he understood math concepts as they were taught to him, but the next day, “poof,” says his mom, Tracy. “They were gone, like he’d never learned them at all.” But the implementation of a type of occupational therapy called sensory integration therapy offered at the Lurie Center LADDERS program by Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Network specialists is helping autistic children like Ryan retain and comprehend new knowledge and communicate better.The Spaulding team, working closely with MGH physicians, offers various types of therapies including speech and language therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, as well as social skills groups, sensory motor groups, and a developmental swim program. Sensory integration therapy, usually provided by specially trained occupational therapists, has led to improved outcomes for children with the disorder — when the brain’s balancing act for interpreting and responding to sensations is out of whack — which is common in autism. And kids find it great fun.
In one recent weekly session, Amy Feingold, Ryan’s occupational therapist, vigorously pushed Ryan, who is 11 and in fifth grade, high into the air, then in dizzyingly fast circles, on a swing in a room outfitted with thick floor mats. The movement, says Ms. Feingold, gives Ryan a better sense of calm, organization, and attention, and heightens his capacity to take in and cope with sensory and learning experiences, because it’s providing input that he needs to help him function more fully in his environment. That, in turn, helps him absorb new things at school — math, language, you name it.
The therapy, which also involves the use of tunnels, ropes and balls, also provides him with other sensory experiences that help provide him with better “body in space awareness” and helps him burn energy and build his muscles, which in turn helps him stay calm and focus better on social and learning situations. It also boosts his visual motor skills, motor coordination and balance.
Ryan’s sensory integration therapy sessions started several years ago, on a day when he was having a hard time during a speech therapy session. “I thought, let’s put up the swing and just try and see if giving him some movement and intense sensory input will help him focus,” Ms. Feingold recalls. It worked. Now, his therapy sessions also include kneading resistive putty, blowing bubbles, playing tug-of-war and doing jumping jacks. Ms. Feingold ends the sessions with cranial-sacral therapy, in which she dims the lights and, using light touch and other manual techniques to his head and neck, she relaxes him almost instantly. It has also eradicated his migraines.
“If we miss one of these sessions, it’s a disaster. He’s agitated and he doesn’t get anything out of school,” says his mother. “Amy’s a godsend. He can really do math well now and his concentration and patience are much, much better. But there’s always work to do.” The next hurdle: reading comprehension. “He reads at a fifth-grade level,” says Tracy. “In fact, he once memorized the entire dictionary. But he doesn’t usually comprehend what he’s reading.”