There are a variety of physical and/or mental conditions that become apparent during childhood and cause certain limitations in ability. Among them are autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation. Persons with developmental disorders may not learn very quickly or be able to express themselves clearly. They will often be unable to or have difficulty in taking care of themselves and have limited mobility.

The causes of the various limitations are many, and can occur before, during or after birth. They may be the result of genetic problems, poor prenatal care, exposure to toxic substances such as drugs or alcohol, lack of oxygen during the birth process or traumatic brain injury. Often the exact cause is unknown.

A History of Abuse and Neglect

Early in American history, those with developmental disabilities were generally grouped in a classification referred to as deviant. They were looked upon with suspicion and at times accused of witchcraft or of being possessed by the devil. If they survived at all, they were often housed together in correctional facilities along with prostitutes, beggars, paupers, convicted criminals and the criminally insane.

Until as recently as 30 – 40 years ago, many persons diagnosed with some form of developmental disability were treated and even officially classified as subhuman. Those who could not be cared for by a loving family were relegated to live in institutions, where they were routinely exposed to abuse and neglect. Personal needs or abilities were not recognized. Those who were institutionalized often shared clothing and were bathed en masse by being hosed down in a large shower room.

A Return to Dignity

Throughout history, while there has been mass abuse of this population, there have also been those who have fought hard for their rights as human beings, deserving of respect and entitled to decent housing, medical care, counseling and more.

Today there is far less abuse, and many who were formerly institutionalized now live in handicapped accessible group homes, where they share dining and general living areas, but have their own bedrooms. Care and supervision is personal and monitored throughout the day and a trained staff is present 24 hours a day. The residents of these homes have frequent interaction with physical therapists, occupational therapists, recreational therapists and social workers. They are treated to outings such as the occasional seasonal party or shopping days and have in-house activities such as music and art therapies.

As recently as September 2008, federal laws have been updated and expanded to improve the lives of those who may be unable to care for themselves.

How Can Massage Help?

Sometimes the benefits are obvious. A person with cerebral palsy might experience less tightness or spasming in his/her muscles after receiving massage. Someone who has restricted movement may experience greater flexibility through the application of massage and stretching. Often the benefits are subtle, yet profound for both the client and the therapist. A person with a history of being very docile or lethargic will, after a few massage therapy sessions, be more alert and reactive. Someone who has been, for the most part, non-verbal or non-communicative, will speak and interact with others.

Several forms of complementary therapies have been shown to be effective in treating the developmentally disabled. Among them are:

  • Aromatherapy – The use of essential oils can be of great help when used with the developmentally disabled. Chamomile, jasmine, ylang ylang and rose are known for their calming properties, while marjoram, rose geranium and lavender are sometimes used to help those who have trouble sleeping. Precautions need to be observed, such as avoiding the use of scents that may be too stimulating. Many of the developmentally disabled take a lot of medications. It is vital that you know what they are taking if you use aromatherapy so as to avoid any unpleasant or possibly harmful reactions. For example, aniseed, dill, fennel, hyssop and sage should not be used if the person has epilepsy.
  • Chair Massage – Knowing how to do chair massage can be of great help, as many of the developmentally disabled are wheelchair bound or simply unable to get onto a massage table. It is also generally not advised and often inappropriate to use their beds for a massage therapy session. While you may not be able to use a standard massage chair for the session, the skills you use for someone in a wheel chair can be easily transferred. A person who sits all day will benefit greatly from leg and foot massage, as well as massage on arms and hands that may ache from pushing the wheels.
  • Lymphatic Drainage – Many of the developmentally disabled are in wheelchairs all day, or have limited physical activity because of impairment or physiological imbalance. The result can be lymphedema, or a buildup of fluids, especially in the legs and ankles. Lymphatic drainage massage uses very light pressure strokes to help eliminate this fluid and can reduce the discomfort cause by this condition
  • Reflexology – Various physical or neurological disabilities may prevent the use of certain techniques, but reflexology can be used in some form on most persons. Used mostly on the feet, it can also be used on the hands, face or ears, depending on which system is used. These areas are rich in nerve endings, which correspond to reflex zones in the body. These, in turn, affect the various glands, organs and internal/external areas of the body.

These methods are safe, gentle and non-invasive, and can be used on children as well as adults. These and other forms of touch therapy help with proprioception and improvement in joint flexibility and mobility. Often there is some improvement in cognition and communication, which may be due in part to the one-to-one attention during the session.

While facing a challenging future, many with developmental disabilities can still lead full and active lives. Offering massage helps them integrate more fully into our society and receive a caring and compassionate hands-on therapy. Working with the developmentally disabled will not only improve their lives, but it will undoubtedly touch your heart and soul as well.

Recommended Study:

Aromatherapy Essentials
Chair Massage Fundamentals
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Reflexology

Resources:

“Administration on Developmental Disabilities: ADD Fact Sheet.” Administration for Children & Families. US Department of Health & Human Services. 18 Dec 2008 http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/add/Factsheet.html.

“Information and Technical Assistance on the ADA.” Americans With Disabilities Act. US Dept. of Justice. 18 Dec 2008 http://www.ada.gov.

“NYS-OMRDD:FAQS.” August 20, 2008. New York State Office of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities. 18 Dec 2008 http://www.omr.state.ny.us/hp_faqs.jsp.

Wolfensberger, Wolf. “DHM: Library – The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models.” (January 10, 1969) Disability History Museum. 18 Dec 2008 http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/lib/docs/1909.htm.