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Healthy Living for the Developmentally Disabled

By Martha Michael

Healthy Living for the Developmentally Disabled

It was the late President John F. Kennedy in 1961 who brought up the idea of making the world safe for diversity. It was his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who acted on it when she founded the Special Olympics in 1968.

There is much greater understanding today about the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities, which include a wide range of categories from Down Syndrome to Asperger’s. But regardless of a person’s diagnosis, a proper health regimen is a key contributor to wellness, just as it is for the rest of the population.

April is both Autism Awareness Month and Occupational Therapy Month, which both serve to educate fellow Americans about individuals who have developmental challenges.

Autism Awareness

Government data estimates that 1 in 45 children ages 3 to 17 are diagnosed with autism, according to a special report by

Autism is defined as a mental condition in which the individual has trouble communicating and forming relationships. But there are additional challenges when treating the health of a person with autism because many physical and mental health conditions can accompany autism.

“Autism is a whole-body disorder for many people on the spectrum,” says the Autism Speaks report. “Its common co-morbidities include epilepsy, gastrointestinal distress, sleep disturbances, eating and feeding challenges, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

It’s important that it not go unnoticed.

“Two percent of children in the U.S. are living with autism,” says epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff, director for public health research for Autism Speaks, “(and) the earlier they have access to care, services and treatment, the more likely they are to progress.”

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists are trained to assess the needs of developmentally disabled men, women, boys and girls to better serve their wellness goals. The American Occupational Therapy Association defines the profession as helping “people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities.”

It’s a holistic practice involving evaluation and intervention that aims to customize treatment. Those who work in the field of occupational therapy assist people of all ages who need specialized support and services.

Duties of an occupational therapist include:

  • Creating customized treatment to help a disabled person with daily activities
  • Evaluating an individual’s home and job site to suggest adaptive changes
  • Assessing the skills of a client for effective treatment
  • Making recommendations for adaptive equipment
  • Consulting with caregivers and families

Medical Management

If you’re a caregiver, a guardian, or a family friend, you can promote the health and welfare of a special needs child or adult by becoming more schooled in the kinds of challenges that differently abled boys and girls face.

One could argue that structure is a benefit to all people, but for those with special needs, it’s perhaps more critical. Putting programs on the calendar that maximize wellness is a good start. An excerpt from the book America’s Children: Health Insurance and Access to Care, posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, discusses the unique healthcare needs of disabled persons.

“In addition to the usual health care needs, such as immunizations or care for acute respiratory infections, they often require the assistance of physicians and nonphysician specialists, such as nutritionists or physical therapists,” the excerpt says. “For example, they may require specialized diets, surgical interventions, and specific therapies to prevent complications and to relieve or reduce symptoms.”

Citing a figure from the National Health Interview Survey, it says that children with disabilities visit doctors 1 1/2 times more than their peers and are hospitalized 3 1/2 times more than kids without disabilities. That contributes to missing more school, which results in more cases of a special needs child needing to repeat a grade.

While acknowledging the need for medical specialists to improve the lifespan and everyday health of the developmentally disabled, America’s Children warns that fragmented care can be the cause of medical crises, and the author suggests coordination among practitioners. For instance, developing an explicit treatment plan with your chiropractic professional means there are fewer gaps in service and, in fact, one treatment can compliment another.

If you’re a parent or caregiver taking a disabled individual for regular chiropractic visits, you’re doing your part to prevent unwelcome crises. You, the patient, and the chiropractor can take a team approach to designing a plan to maximize his/her health.

“Care coordination … helps to increase the likelihood that a child will be referred for appropriate medical and adjunctive services to maintain as high a level of independent functioning as possible,” the book says. “Because of their complicated medical status, these children need more frequent visits to physicians and other healthcare professionals.”

A lack of understanding in the 1940s kept JFK’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy, from getting the kind of attention to her special needs that she surely would have received today. Healthcare professionals now know that despite their unique challenges, differently abled individuals have a better quality of life with much the same formula as the rest of the world: A strong support system, including family members and a team of medical professionals from chiropractors to dentists, can minimize the chance of devastating gaps in health care -- no matter who you are.

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