Holistic approach winning battles with disabilities

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

There may be hope for people suffering the effects of everything from learning disabilities to cerebral palsy to Alzheimer's disease. This hope comes in the form of the Holistic Approach to Neurodevelopment and Learning Efficiency.

HANDLE is an alternative to using drugs in the treatment of brain and nervous system problems. The approach uses various disciplines, taking information from occupational therapy, psychology, educational theory, nutrition and medicine.

"It looks for and treats the root cause of the problem, instead of symptoms," said Cathy Stingley, director of HANDLE in Homer.

It also creates treatment fitted to the individual rather than the diagnosis.

The philosophy behind it is simple. The nervous system develops continuously, but the patterns in the brain are influenced by the environment.

A system that is overwhelmed by stimuli in the environment responds through stress and may shut down. By making changes in the environment, that system can begin to function again.

The founder of HANDLE is Judith Bluestone, who has had to deal with her own disabilities. She began the institute five years ago in Seattle. Since that time, it has held training sessions throughout the United States and in Europe.

Stingley first became interested in the program when she saw a flyer on a library bulletin board. At the time, she was caring for a young lady with cerebral palsy.

The girl's muscles were so stiff from the illness that she only had use of the left side her body. One side of her face had not grown, and as a teen-ager, she still had all of her baby teeth.

Stingley attended an orientation session with her client. While there, Bluestone did a three-minute exercise with the client. The exercise relieved the stiffness so that the girl could participate in a following activity with more independence than previously possible.

Since then, the young lady has been participating in the HANDLE program. She has shown continued improvement with a disease that historically has little chance for hope. Her face has begun to grow and her adult teeth are coming in.

Stingley, as well, has stayed with HANDLE. She completed training and internships. Now she travels to Europe to train people in the approach. The institute has plans to begin training in Africa.

Teaching others about HANDLE is rewarding, Stingley said.

"What's most gratifying is to hear them come back and say, 'You'll never guess what happened; I have to show you,'" she said.

Its versatility is an advantage. The approach can help anyone because everyone could develop further, she said. Specifically, HANDLE has been instrumental in helping people with problems as varied as schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, speech disorders and genetic disorders.

It is designed to be used by anyone who has received training. Beginning with an orientation class, students are given activities that can be used in their current work.

People interested in continuing their training can apply for an internship. The internship is spread out over nine months to a year to accommodate students' work schedules.

Following the internship, trainees receive clinical experience with clients. They can then work for the institute, begin their own clinic or simply integrate the approach into their jobs or lives.

For one particular child, HANDLE helped him overcome a learning disability through an innovative approach. The boy had difficulty reading and writing because his eyes did not work together.

During homework, the boy's caregiver allowed him to drink through a crazy straw. As he rewrote the paper he was working on after each drink, the handwriting and reasoning improved dramatically.

The HANDLE interpretation of this phenomenon is that by drinking from the straw, the boy was stimulating multiple muscles in the face and mouth. This in turn stimulated both sides of the brain. With both sides of the brain stimulated, the optical nerves began to work together.

While this theory seems unusual, its uniqueness is part of its appeal.

"I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it. But then I did and, of course, I was able to figure it out from there," Stingley said.

HANDLE is based on research and techniques in medicine and other fields. The institute also aims to increase its own research in support of its approach.

In the meantime, it continues to offer training to interested individuals and professionals.

HANDLE of Homer will hold an orientation class Friday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

A nine-month to one-year internship will be offered beginning Aug. 15.

For more information, call Stingley at (907) 235-6226.

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