Strengthening Mind and Body

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Conductive Education Research Aims to Empower the Potential of the Brain

Ted Conway was 10-years-old when he started using crutches as a result of a neurological injury at birth.

As he became accustomed to them, he gained a specific kind of knowledge about how to move across surfaces.

“Inherently, I learned the variability of the co-efficient of friction between rubber and various floor surfaces,” explained Conway, head of Florida Institute of Technology’s biomedical engineering department. “I couldn’t articulate it until I became an engineer, but I knew it: experience showed me that my approach with the crutch would dictate either falling down or navigating the floor successfully.”

Conway’s family brought a thoughtful approach, as well, to their son’s cerebral palsy, understanding that the hindered movement caused by the non-progressive disorder that alters his ability to maintain fine motor control of his lower extremities didn’t mean sheltering him from daily life. He simply needed a different approach to mobility.

Conway grew into a distinguished scholar who spent much of his career investigating ways to connect technology and design with medicine and biology. But even as an adult, even as a former program director at the National Science Foundation, he sometimes has been viewed as a person with a disability first and an engineer second.

“The biggest challenge of dealing with a physical disability, by far, is dealing with other people’s perception of what you are able or not able to do,” he said. “I want to see a paradigm shift away from the tendency to exclude people with disabilities from the pool of innovative thinkers.”

After years of focusing on his work as an academic, Conway wants to help open the door to the next generation of scholars who happen to have disabilities.

One of his efforts is to support schools and organizations that give children with disabilities a chance to grow their minds, which is what he had a chance to do growing up in Central Florida. After a short stay at what was then called the Harry-Anna Home for Crippled Children in Umatilla, Florida where restraint was the standard operating procedure, Conway was enrolled in a public elementary school in Orlando catering to children with polio that integrated therapy into a traditional academic curriculum.

The move was an advantageous one for Conway, opening up the door to academic achievement and forging his future career in engineering.

Not all children with disabilities have been so lucky, Conway said, even today. When the focus is therapy that only addresses the disability and neglects the mind, society misses out on an entire group of problem solvers.

“That’s one of the reasons I am passionate about conductive education,” he said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation under its General & Age Related Disabilities Engineering program, Conway and his collaborators are working to find a method to scientifically quantify the benefit of conductive education for children with cerebral palsy. This therapy aims to strengthen connections in the brain to allow the recipient to gain both better mobility and problem solving skills with the ultimate goal of independence.

Research as Outreach

Still relatively unheralded in the United States, conductive education was developed by Hungarian physician and educator András Petö in 1945. His methods, which combine physiological therapy, cognitive development and social interactions, are based on the idea that the nervous system of someone with CP can still form new neural connections, and that those connections can be harnessed to stimulate movement with the help of a guided and active learning process.

A conductor – the person who guides the patient – helps link speech, thought and movement together though techniques such as “rhythmic intent”–which uses beats and lyrical cues in music–and mastery of simple equipment such as ladder chairs that promote upright alignment and support of the spine. The goal is to get the child to perform everyday activities on her own accord such as standing, walking, dressing and eating.

Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that the conductive method works.

Florida Tech is working with students at the Conductive Education Center of Orlando (CECO) who have agreed to provide biometric data to determine the validity of the collected data. Supportive findings could pave the way for more widespread use of conductive techniques.

“Conductive education has demonstrated great results for thousands of people,” said Rosene Johnson, director of the (CECO). “We hope this research will allow us to illustrate the correlation between the conductive method and hard science.”

New Technology

Design Interactive, Inc., one of three principal investigators on the project, is designing virtual reality software that will guide subjects through a set of tests involving movement. Blue Orb, a company specializing in computer tools for people with disabilities, another PI, is developing the hardware for the system. The role of Florida Tech, the third PI, is to develop a quantitative method to measure movements such as pace, steps and joint placement to map the progress of the student over time.

The difficulty in researching progress in conductive education is that because cerebral palsy affects individuals differently, a milestone for one child may not be a milestone for another.

To work on that problem, Florida Tech research students Megan Setter and Jará Templet are developing a mathematical algorithm that can be used to track improvement for each individual tested based on his or her unique abilities and goals. Setter’s job is to identify ergonomic metrics that measure things such as range of motion, while Templet will take the raw data and develop a method for systematically analyzing the information to show progress.

“What I love about this project,” said Templet, “is that we will be in the classrooms with the kids and the conductors, and we can talk with the parents. We can watch and see what they are working to improve and get feedback on what they think we should be tracking. We want to be able to target each of their goals specifically.”

“By combining physiology with engineering we can get some amazing biomechanics,” said Setter. “And that is what this whole project really is: quantifying the biometrics.”

Focused on Achievement

Though Conway and his team are excited about the engineering challenges ahead with quantifying the benefits of conductive education, the bigger picture comes back to giving more children real opportunities to succeed physically and mentally.

Conway would like to see the children at CECO – and eventually those beyond Orlando – find their own approach to the world and a path for bringing their talents to the table just as he was able to do as a boy.

“Scientifically proving the value of the conductive method could provide tools to enhance the lives of many more children with CP, allowing them to maximize their abilities,” he said.

On a recent morning at CECO, Conway, Templet and Setter observed the students in their classrooms and talked with staff about their methods. In each classroom, children grouped by age and with various levels of cognative and motor disabilities were deep into their morning routine. With conductors providing verbal cues, toddlers to teenagers practiced exercises to coax limbs into walking, pulling up to stand or reaching for an object.

Conway said he could see a lot of himself in the students. Though he didn’t use the conductive method as a child, his parents intuitively used a similar approach by focusing on ability rather than disability.

“There were problems I had to solve on a day-to-day basis that most people didn’t have to think about,” he said. “These kids also develop creativity to solve problems. Success is not a function of brilliance; it’s often a function of persistence.”

–Shelley Preston 

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