When it comes to physical therapy, 6-year-old Ethan Jackson knows the score all too well. Ethan has cerebral palsy, bilateral periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) and chronic lung disease – which would be a lot for anyone, let alone a 6-year-old. As part of his conditions, Ethan has trouble with balance and can only walk using a walker. As such, physical therapy has been a big part of his six years, and likely will remain so for much of his life.
For kids, physical therapy sessions, while unquestionably necessary and beneficial, also can be incredibly taxing. “Usually, with intense therapy, the kids are either completely worn out after it’s over or they’re crying that they don’t want to come,” said Ethan’s mom Jessica Jackson. “But with this, they’re ready to get up and ready to come.”
That’s because this is no ordinary physical therapy session. This is “Mighty Muscles,” the Blount Memorial Pediatric Rehabilitation Center’s summer strength program for special needs children. This will be Ethan’s second summer in the program.
“We did Mighty Muscles two years ago,” Jackson said. “A therapist recommended we try it and invited us to come. It’s kind of an intense therapy. Instead of coming once a week, we come twice a week. This year, it lasts a full month,” she added.
While his mom watches and waits, Ethan participates in a variety of activities designed not only to help him remain active and get stronger, but also to make sure he’s having fun. This particular session is built around a circus theme, so each exercise ties into the overall concept. And though Ethan is successful at some of the activities and has a harder time with others, he’s definitely having fun, in part because he’s not alone. “Mighty Muscles” takes kids out of their one-on-one sessions with their physical therapist and puts them in a group of peers.
“The kids think it’s fun, and the parents like that the kids are coming and getting strength exercises,” said Blount Memorial physical therapist Amy Bashford. “A lot of times, it can be hard to find a summer program that is appropriate for children with special needs. This is something that is both appropriate and beneficial for them. During ‘Mighty Muscles,’ the kids don’t always know that they’re working. They think they’re just in there having a good time, and don’t realize that they’re actually exercising. I think the kids also get motivation from being with peers. It leads them to the idea that ‘If they can do that, I can do that, too,’” she explained.
Even if they don’t take part in individual physical therapy sessions, most special needs children receive some type of therapy while they’re in school. Once summer rolls around, though, it’s up to the parents to make sure that activity continues, which can be challenging for parents who work or have other scheduling concerns. “Mighty Muscles” acts as a way to keep the ball rolling with kids who need the extra attention and support.
“It’s so fun,” Bashford exclaimed. “It’s one of my favorite things I do as a physical therapist. It’s different from a regular treatment session. It’s new, and being in a group is just a different dynamic. It’s fun to have the kids all together. It’s great to take the exercises and tools we normally use and adapt them to make them more interesting and fun for the kids. It’s both challenging and fun for us,” she said.
“It’s awesome that the therapists here are so involved and hands on,” Jackson said. “They make sure they pull out kids who might not get this chance and would benefit from it. They can tell when certain kids enjoy having therapy together, so they try to arrange things where they can do that,” she said.
At the end of the month, Ethan and his friends take part in a “fun day” that lets them celebrate and show off all they’ve accomplished to their parents and siblings. Complete with ice cream sundaes and t-shirts, the party is a chance for the kids to spend time together in a more relaxing setting. “That is the day they really look forward to,” Jackson said. “They enjoy coming to the sessions, of course, but everybody looks forward to a celebration. They all deserve these moments.”
Bashford says the plan is to continue “Mighty Muscles” next year, as well. “They did very well this summer,” she said. “I think everyone enjoyed it, and they were successful.”
For more information about the “Mighty Muscles” program or pediatric therapy services, call the Blount Memorial Pediatric Rehabilitation Center at 865-980-7171.