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Not your ordinary workout.

HANDLE Institute creates unusual exercises to treat attention deficit disorder, autism.

The Puget Sound Business Journal, May 23-29, 1997, Page 12-A

The name of a Seattle alternative treatment organization called the HANDLE Institute is more that just an acronym -- it also describes the way it treats patients. Rather than relying on treatment disorders with drugs as many doctors do, the Holistic Approach to Neuro-Development and Learning Efficiency (Handle) method concentrates on handing patients by gently enhancing the body system of individuals suffering from such conditions as attention deficit disorder (ADD), Tourette’s syndrome and autism, said Don Rumph, the HANDLE Institute’s clinic director.

"We work with neuro-developmental disorders from the root. We try to identify the system in the body that’s being stressed and then develop a plan of exercises to help a patient overcome the disorder," Rumph said. Through the exercises, "the system is reminded that it’s there. It is not put under stress, because a stressed system is one that shuts down," said Judith Bluestone, founder of the treatment approach and the clinic.

If a victim of a brain injury is having trouble with light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, articulation or bowel and bladder control, for example, the therapists at the clinic might treat the problem by having the patient slowly suck water through a crazy straw. A crazy straw is a child’s toy that requires the liquid to pass through a number of twists and turns before it reaches the drinker’s mouth.

It may sound strange, but it makes a great deal of sense, according to a statement from the HANDLE Institute, because it stimulates both sides of the brain, and reestablishes the neural pathways that allow the brain to process language and the nerves that allow the eyes to focus. Other exercise that the institute has prescribed have included rolling on the floor, bouncing a ball against a wall or having a patient work in a dimly lit room.

Method to Madness

The treatments aren’t as random as they seem and there is a method to what appears to be madness, said Bluestone, who developed the approach after receiving her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin’s department of counseling and behavioral studies. The whole process starts with a two-hour nuero-developmental assessment that includes intensive interviews and a battery of tests designed to allow therapists to determine the nature of the problem based on the patient’s responses. The tests not only help the therapists determine why a client may have unusual response patterns to everyday challenges, it also helps them determine what must change to make the pattern effective and efficient, Bluestone says.

Therapists typically discuss results with patients and prescribe activities during a two-hour follow-up session. Most of the activities can be done at home, take 20 minutes to complete and usually require little special equipment. "About 90 percent of the people that come in walk out with a crazy straw in their hands," Bluestone says, only half-joking. In a case of ADD, autism and other behavioral disorders, Rumph says, "the standard Western approach is to give a chemical that masks the symptoms. That does nothing to cure the child of the problem. They’ve just hidden it."

Some medical treatments such as Ritalin also may result in unpleasant side effects, Rumph added. "Since this is non-medical, there are no medical side effects," she said

Such a lack of side effects and a recommendation from a teacher is what helped attract Karen and Ron Werth to the institute in October 1995, when their 7-year-old son Ben continued to have problems reading, although his teachers considered him quite bright. He also couldn’t tie his shoes or swim. Ben’s teachers "were stumped by his inability to progress. His verbal skills were quite high," Karen Werth said, adding that the reading difficulties were beginning to take their toll on her son." He started to identify himself as stupid. They prescribed a number of exercises, none of which had anything to do with reading," Werth said.

One exercise called for him to throw a ball at the wall with one hand while kneeling on one knee, then switching knees and catching the call on the rebound with his other hand. In another, he had to sit cross-legged on the floor, find a focal point and continue to stare at it while his body had moved all the way over to the right, back to the center and then all the way to the left. He also had to play a game of blow hockey with a small ball on the table every day, his mother said.

Initial frustration

"Some of the exercises were real frustrating for him because he found out there were portions of his body that he couldn’t coordinate even though he was a good athlete," she said. The rhythmic up-and-down, back-and-forth movements were designed to slowly establish nuero-pathways that are present in most people but never quite developed in her son, Werth said. "By January, not only had he begun to read, he was also tying his shoes," she said. Now that he’s finishing second grade, his tests show that he is reading at the level of a student completing third grade. "This is the kind of stuff that never could have happened before," Werth added, "because Western medicine couldn’t offer anything for her son’s learning disabilities other than medication."

Although Werth is a psychotherapist who is more familiar with the Western model of treatment, she didn’t hesitate to try the HANDLE approach after Western medicine and naturopathic diets and herbs had failed to address the problem. "The difference here is that you’re not exposing your child to anything invasive or anything that could create potential harm. It wasn’t as if I was taking him for any type of odd injections or herbs. It wasn’t like that. It was very user-friendly. "What I know absolutely and positively for sure is that it didn’t hurt anything," Werth added.

An additional benefit of trying the institute first is that it cost far less than taking her son to reading specialists who typically charge from $900 to $1,200 for evaluations. At the time, Bluestone charged $650. These days, the institute’s rate is closer to $800 for the evaluations, a rate that is still less expensive than that of many reading specialists. "They’re very good at not creating a situation where you need them again and again because the assessment and a follow-up visit is all most institute patients generally need," Werth said.

Insurers not covering

That may be a good thing because, so far, most major insurance companies will not cover the costs of the treatments because they have not been proved scientifically effective, Bluestone says. "If you can’t put it in a test tube and test it, it’s not scientific. If it’s not scientific, it can’t be good, is the way doctors and insurance companies look at it," Bluestone said. "Unfortunately you can’t put attitude in a test tube and measure it."

That’s too bad, she says, because the traditional approach is costing the insurance industry far more money than her approach would. "Right now, for many impaired people staying on disability is a drain on their income and on society. We can take care of the issues a lot more easily and cheaply than you might imagine." Werth isn’t the only person who gives Bluestone’s methods a favorable review, however. An administrator at University Child Development School said a psychologist who consults with the school sent students who were having trouble with their and writing skills to the institute. "In both cases, the handwriting did seem to improve," said head of school Paula Smith.

It’s hard to find critics in the medical community who will dispute Bluestone’s claims, because the 3-year-old institute is so new that many haven’t heard of it or her approach – even though she says she has treated more than 3,000 patients. That number may jump even higher soon because she has opened a clinic in Texas. There’s no age limit for the treatments, said Bluestone, whose oldest client was a man in his 70’s.

The clinic claims its success rate is about 90 percent and that most clients notice significant improvements within the first six to 10 weeks on treatment.


David Volk is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.