We met Michael Regina-Whiteley at the Alternatives for Special Kids Conference in Irvine, California, and were inspired by his sincere passion for helping kids and adults with special needs. During the interview I did with Michael, I was struck by his deep heart energy, and inspired attitudes towards helping those who cannot help themselves, despite the institutional hurdles to be overcome.
As a Licensed Massage Therapist, Michael initially began work with the Pineland Institute (now the Pineland Center). During his tenure there, he discovered the tremendous gaping need for massage therapy within the special needs population. Most of this need comes from the alienation these people experience often due to uncontrollable gesturing, facial distortions and self-interest behaviors related to their brain or nervous system dysfunction.
Massage therapy has been acknowledged for years as a simple and inexpensive way to both deliver desperately needed physical therapy, and to control aggressive behaviors. However, the deplorable history of how Society has treated people with these conditions is appalling. "State insitutions used to be dumping grounds for individuals who seemed like they were slow, or had some physical disability," notes Michael. "They were just dumped into the state institutions. The early stages of the state institution here in Maine opened in 1903, called the Pownal Center for the Feeble Minded. In those days, in the early 1900's, into the 20's, 30's, 40's, and even 50's, any family who had too many kids--even if the kid was considered normal, they were able to just say that the kid was slow, and they were insitutionalized. The State, by mandate, had to take care of them. When I worked at the Pineland Center, there was a family of three children all with mental retardation who lived there. They were three of sixteen kids."
Michael says his original inspiration for helping special needs people came from a child client with autism. "After I had been working with this young kid for a couple of months or so, the parents were so impressed with the care I was giving their kid, they started spreading the word around to their friends who had kids with special needs. So I started getting more and more gigs, and I just became impassioned about it, because the kids were just so special."
Soon Michael was working not only with autism conditions, but with kids with Down's Syndrome, who particularly touched his heart. "Have you ever met a kid with Down's Syndrome? They just capture your heart right away. They're just incredible people. I do children with Down's and with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) that are as young as seven years old, and have clients with Down's Syndrome. I had one that just passed away, he was 62."
"My thoughts are that there are so many clients out there who need our services--people with special needs. So very few of us massage therapists are actually doing the work. That's what distresses me the most, and that is the real reason why I travel around the country teaching my class. I want more and more people to become aware of a population who just drastically needs positive touch. For a lot of people in the rest of the population--and massage therapists--are afraid and intimidated by people with special needs. They'll see somebody out in public who may be drooling, or may be having a lot of tongue movement or oral fixations, and they get scared. They just think, 'Ooo, I could never work with them.' When in fact, there are many people, both children and adult, who have what's called spastic cerebral palsy, who have these tongue thrusts that go on continuously. It doesn't necessarily mean they are retarded or that they are incapable, it just means that they have muscles that just fire--it's involuntary."
Many of Michael's clients have remained with him over several years, having begun as children and who are now adults. Several of these clients were originally treated by Micheal due to aggressive behaviors in an institution, and his results were a godsend for attendant staff. "One of the main reasons I'm doing massage therapy is for treatment and to help control aggressive and obstinate behaviors. I have a lot of clients who are requiring two or three staff people to do care for these folks, and to control aggressive incidents and self-injurious behaviors. Therapies like this were never heard of, nor was active physical therapy and occupational therapy. It was never really being done. There was never any follow through."
Michael has many stories of his successes, and the poignant feeling accompanying the stories creates a great upwelling of hope in one's heart. As Michael relates, "I had a client years ago when I first started as a massage therapist, who was doing the process of de-institutionalization, and was being transferred to a group home. She was coming from a very, very structured environment in that the clients silverware was counted every day, the clients had no access to food or kitchen or any of that stuff. She was given free reign because all the other clients in the home were given free reign. They could go make up their own snacks. So she within a couple of months had gained 30 pounds. Then they had to put the brakes on, so they said, 'We're going to have to start restricting her movement in the kitchen because obviously this is out of control.' Once they started the restriction of it, she became extremely aggressive in that she was breaking people's noses, breaking glasses, she knocked out teeth, was biting them--any way that you could possibly hurt a human being, this woman was doing to these staff people who worked there.
"They asked me to start doing massage on her. Within a couple of weeks her aggressive behavior started to slow down. They saw that as a positive intervention, so they gave me a pager. So she was on a PRN (Per Required Need), and any time she became aggressive or she was having a hard day, they paged me and I had to go take care of her. After her massage she was like an angel. The staff were calling me god. Just a simple thing like that--I was doing a one-hour full-body massage on her, and she was great the rest of the day and into the next day. And to this day--this was seven or eight years ago--this girl gets a massage every single week, and there is almost no aggressive behavior. There are so many of my clients who are now just on regular staffing. These people live in group homes. When I first started there, there were maybe two on one staffing, or three on one staffing. But after only three or four or five sessions, their behaviors started to mellow out enough that they were able to start reducing the amount of staff who had to take care of the clients."
Besides doing his massages, Michael trains attendant staff on intervention with such simple techniques as a head-neck-back massage. This has led to decreased frequency and duration of aggressive episodes.
The obvious question that arises is, Why is massage therapy not used more widely for special needs people? "I think a lot of it was they just didn't care. There were eight people that lived in this group home. All of them have cerebral palsy in varying degrees of disability. They just weren't taken care of when they were younger. There was no active physical therapy that is totally necessary for someone with CP. So lymph, muscles and joints started to atrophy, which is a permanent wasting away of the muscle tissue. So many of their activities of daily living--things like hygiene and dressing and those things, are so limited. Had they had physical therapy originally, the atrophy wouldn't have occurred. None of those things would have happened to the degree that they do had they had proper physical therapy. But remember we're talking about a generation of people who were placed in state institutions for the convenience of the parents. I understand that they didn't know how to take care of them, but it was so difficult for them to be placed there because in many cases they weren't mentally retarded. They were just physically unable to do things for themselves."
Although tons of research exists on the value of positive touch in treating a wide range of brain, nerve and muscle dysfunction, Michael needs no scientific basis for his work. "I don't need to research that. It's just my experience with massage therapy--how much it relaxes me and my clients. So it stands to reason. Massage is a perfect tool for people who have a low cognitive level, because it doesn't require any participation on their part. If I say to you, 'I'm going to give you a massage and it's going to help you relax,' there is that little bit of power of suggestion. But now I'm talking about a population whose IQ levels are a lot of the time between 20 and 60, who are diagnosed with severe mental retardation or profound mental retardation, but to whom I can't say, 'You're going to relax when I give you a massage.'"
Surprisingly, within the massage therapist educational culture, very little training is available specifically for special needs people, and this is where Michael shines. "Schools are now hiring me to come on a continuing basis. They're making a part of their core curriculum. Historically, in terms of massage schools, there are no massage schools who offer specified training on massage for people with special needs. There's absolutely no discussion about that whatsoever. I am now, and many massage therapists are, in a key position to start helping these youngsters so that down the line they're not going to end up as some of the adults with mental retardation are now. There are so many different therapies that are out there, we can provide it now. We can teach parents and care providers how to do very simple massage techniques that you don't have to be a licensed massage therapist to do, but you can improve the quality of a life."
On his national campaign to raise awareness of the need for massage therapy for the special needs population, Michael has toured 40 cities over the past two years speaking at conferences and teaching at American Massage Therapy Association Chapters. By raising awareness about this unique career opportunity for new LMT's, Michael is able to help answer the demand now being demonstrated by State-funded institutions and private care companies. "I'm nine years into this now, and if it wasn't tried and true, I wouldn't still be employed by these agencies. Budgets are budgets are budgets, so if they didn't see results, they wouldn't keep me on."
If interested in having Michael's training in your area, contact your state's AMTA chapter directly with your requests. The trainings are open to family members as well as massage therapists.