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HANDLE Institute’s back-to-basics approach successful

by GLENN REED
From The Seattle Press, February 28-March 12, 1996, Volume X, Number 25

Last October Karen and Ron Werth were growing increasingly concerned about their 7 year-old son, Ben. They realized that his inability to read was becoming an issue and, on the recommendation of his school, decided to bring him to The HANDLE Institute on Westlake Avenue for an evaluation.

The boy was given a set of exercises, such as bouncing a ball off the wall while kneeling on one knee and then changing positions. At first he was resistant to the exercises, but later was convinced to perform them just to prove that they wouldn't help him learn to read.

One night in early January, Mrs. Werth was stunned when her son sat down and read straight through three books. "I felt like I was watching timelapse photography with his progress," she says. "He went through the first grade primary books in two weeks and is now reading at the first grade level."

Ben Werth is one of many dramatic success stories achieved by The HANDLE Institute, located at 1219 Westlake Ave. N. The Institute was established in 1994 by followers of Judith Bluestone, who possesses over 30 years of experience in the diagnosis and treatment of neurodevelopmental problems. The Institute works with people of all ages who have learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc.), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, autism and pervasive developmental disorders, visual/perceptual/motor dysfunctions, behavior disorders, apraxia and dyspraxia, memory and organizational disorders, aphasia and other language disorders, and Tourette's Syndrome.

Success rates, as measured through self-reporting and analysis received from initial referral sources, are approximately 90%. Most clients notice significant improvements in the first six to 10 weeks of treatment, with more dramatic results on occasion.

Bluestone received a master's from the University of Wisconsin's Department of Counseling and Behavioral Studies, where she specialized in neurological impairment and psychology/development; and will soon be completing her Doctoral dissertation on neurodevelopmental perspectives on learning. She has studied developmental optometry, reflexology and acupressure and has treated over 3,000 individuals and families using HANDLE techniques. Thousands have also been treated in Israel by individuals trained in her methods.

WHILE MANY CONSIDER Bluestone's techniques alternative, she thinks of them more as common sense and a return to traditional approaches. "We're unusual in that we treat things at the root of the problem--the underlying subsystems--while others treat symptoms," she notes. "I believe there are genetic predispositions to disorders, but that problems develop from interactions with the environment."

Bluestone points to autism as one instance of where typical treatment methods are applied to compensate the person, whereas the HANDLE approach is based on changing the nervous system so that the person is no longer autistic. A cornerstone of the technique is Bluestone’s "gentle enhancement," which is based on the belief that the nervous system slowly adjusts to change and that people's nervous systems will begin to shut down and not be receptive to change if put under too much stress.

Assessments at The HANDLE Institute involve two sessions of about two hours each. During the first session the client is observed while performing a set of activities in addition to intensive interviewing. A treatment program designed to meet individual needs is prescribed following an evaluation and discussion of the results of these observations.

The exercises recommended by HANDLE staff are intended to alleviate any blocks in an individual's neurodevelopmental functions, which have forced that individual to use other means for interaction. These activities are designed for practice in comfortable settings, require virtually no special equipment, and can be completed in about 20 minutes each day. They include rolling on the floor, rhythmic hand bouncing, working in a dimly lit room, being massaged by a rolling ball, and even sucking through a straw.

"The sucking reflex, necessary for survival, is not just for nourishment," points out Bluestone, "and we've found that those with the greatest degree of visual or auditory problems had little or no sucking reflex as infants."

Sucking on a straw was one of the exercises recommended for a 15 year old girl from Vashon Island who was brought to the Institute nearly two years ago for an evaluation. "She had never learned to speak and had been diagnosed with various behavior disorders," explains the girl's mother, who prefers to remain anonymous. The girl was also tactile defensive (couldn't tolerate being touched), had difficulty walking, and suffered from severe dyspraxia--messages from her brain were not reaching her muscles.

"We were truly worried about her future," notes her mother, "but three days after starting with the HANDLE exercises she started to make sounds that she'd never made before." The mother explains that the exercises helped her daughter overcome the dyspraxia, feel more comfortable walking, and allowed her to be more responsive to other things. The girl is now learning to speak, has moved from a special education class to regular high school classes, and is planning to attend college and be a writer.

CHANGES ARE USUALLY more gradual, yet these dramatic results are also not unusual. "We brought our son in last October because he wasn't comfortable interacting with his peers," says Bernice Darrochmannix of her five year old son, Jeffrey. "He would just sit on my lap and watch." She adds that he was hypersensitive to certain sounds as well.

Jeffrey was evaluated and given a list of exercises to perform. "He want back to Sunday school after Christmas and they were shocked at the change," says Darrochmannix. "He started participating and offering information, and no longer sat back on my lap."

The Institute also does a lot of work with individuals with ADD--Attention Deficit Disorder. Bluestone says that the standard approach in the educational and medical worlds is to give medications to compensate for the disorder, but this just masks the underlying problems.

"I don't believe that there is any such thing as ADD," she argues. "People are always attending to something, but some people just can't be as flexible in resetting attention demands according to the situation." She sites research that indicates people diagnosed with ADD have thinner neural fibers, so they process information more slowly. Medications serve to speed up the processing, but the HANDLE approach actually strengthens those fibers through repeated, organized stimulation and proper nourishment.

Staff at the HANDLE Institute are now focusing on professional training and community education. The organization offers several seminars.

"Some people don't think we can codify this technique--that it is too personal an approach--but we have successfully done so," she says. She also emphasizes how economical are her methods are. "Schools are spending more money on technology, not teacher training, when the basics are cheaper and understandable. They think that because math abilities are down we need more math and they sacrificing the developmental abilities that help children learn math."

In one case, Bluestone was the 37th specialist a child had seen. "We don't want anyone to have to wait this long for help," she says, "and we want the community to know there's hope and things that can be done for someone even if the problem has been there for many years."

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Reprinted by permission: The Seattle Press, © 1996, Seattle Press Publishing, Inc.