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On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 6, 2015 Claire O’Connell suggested taking her three home-schooled sons to the Molyneux Aquatic Centre in Alexandra for a swim.
Her second son, 14-year-old Ferdia, had always liked the water until about 12 months before when he started to balk at going. This time he actually said: "I don’t want to go".
Startled by his response Mrs O’Connell asked: "Why not?" Ferdia replied: "Because they stare at me."
Mrs O’Connell was ‘‘gobsmacked’’, not just because Ferdia had said five words in a row "which was quite unusual" but also because Ferdia had actually told her the behaviour and opinions of others bothered him.
"He had never referred to anything like this before. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, I was so saddened that he felt this way but the MOST important thing was he had told me how he felt."
When Ferdia was 2 years old his mother was told he had "severe language delay" but was not autistic.
It was not until Ferdia was 9 that he was diagnosed as having "high functioning autism" by one of the world’s leading authorities on Asperger’s syndrome, Brisbane clinical psychologist Professor Tony Attwood.
"Those diagnosed with ASD all display (or have in their lifetimes displayed) impairment in social communication and social interaction, restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities."
There is no cure for autism but early intervention is likely to lead to a better quality of life. Mrs O’Connell said before that October day Ferdia was "very uncommunicative, highly stressed and a bad sleeper" but that morning Ferdia had received his first treatment by osteopath Liana Poole at the Wanaka Osteopathic Clinic.
"I have always had an interest in treating behavioral issues coupled with anxiety and since having partners, friends and patients with family members who have ASD my interest has developed into treating those with Asperger's syndrome or diagnosed as being autistic," Ms Poole said.
"I guess as a health professional you start to ask, why does it happen and what has caused this?"
Ms Poole wondered if ASD was an issue to do with the autonomic system which involved the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. (The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect and relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high-energy functions.)
"These boys have extremely high levels of anxiety, it is the kind of feeling you might get when you are about to fall off a cliff but they have it all the time. I used a standard osteopathic technique to gently manipulate the spine and settle the (sympathetic) nervous system which encouraged a better function of the parasympathetic nervous system."
"He used to pace and move his arms around but that first session he went in to the room and laid down on the table and the only thing was he wouldn’t allow was me in the room with him."
When Mrs O’Connell took Ferdia home that afternoon she sensed he was "happy". In the 21 months since that October day Ferdia has had six more osteopathic treatments and each time Mrs O’Connell has seen huge changes in Ferdia.
"About a year ago a special needs dance group started here in Wanaka and I thought I am never going to get him in there as we knew noises hurt his ears, but he absolutely loved it, including the flashing lights and music. I know kids change all the time but I could never have imagined that."
Over the past two years Ms Poole has given seven treatments to two other boys with ASD, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome but who asked not to be named, so for the purposes of this story we will call him Mark. Mark’ s mother said within hours of the first osteopathy treatment by Ms Poole her son was different.
"He had never been able to make eye contact but when I asked him a question he looked me in the eye, thought about it and gave me an answer. I thought: ‘Wow, I have never seen that before’."
Mark’s mother said by the third treatment her son was able to tell the family about aspects of his care he was not happy with.
"His biggest issue had always been not being able to communicate how he felt about things. He would stand there totally frustrated for however long you were willing to wait and still not be able to give you an answer or at best it would be very limited, but once he started the treatment he was able to say: ‘I am angry’, ‘I am sad’ or ‘I am upset about something’."
Mark’s mother said it was "almost by accident" that her son was treated by Ms Poole. Both she and her husband had been treated by the Wanaka osteopath for their bad backs and wondered if their son had also a bad back but had been unable to tell them about it. They took him along to see Ms Poole who asked if, besides checking over his back, she could also try a treatment to help his ASD. From that first session they said it was a like they had "a new son".
It was through Ferdia and Mrs O’Connell’s ongoing communication with Prof Attwood that Ms Poole and her osteopathic treatments came to his attention. Prof Attwood told the ODT: "I do think that osteopathy can be of benefit for those with an autism spectrum disorder and clearly, there is a need for further research. I am very cautious as a scientist of saying that this is a treatment breakthrough prior to independent and objective research being conducted, but I do encourage further exploration of how an osteopathic clinic can help those with an autism spectrum disorder."
Both Altogether Autism and Autism New Zealand agreed with Prof Attwood and said there was an urgent need for more research, and that they would never recommend, endorse or discredit any treatment for ASD that was not evidence-based. Altogether Autism is a free, national service in New Zealand for autism spectrum information and advice.
"As a broad principle we would always ask what does the research say, but there really hasn’t been any studies (into osteopathy on ASD)," Altogether Autism national manager Catherine Trezona said.
"We are always looking for more research although we’re not in a position to fund it," she said.
Autism NZ provides support, training, advocacy, resources and information on Autism Spectrum disorders including Asperger’s Syndrome.
"The research has to be done for us to either support it or be against it," Autism NZ Chief Executive Dane Dougan said.
"What we advocate strongly and what we suggest is that education is very important, getting the right environment for the child is critical, however we are excited and very happy for those families if this sort of therapy is helping them."
Mr Dougan said most of the money for ASD research was spent in finding a cure but he believed it would be better spent in finding the best ways to help people living with autism.
Osteopaths New Zealand President Jonathan Paine said: "Autism is such an emotive subject but at the end of the day there is no research to support manual intervention into autism because as osteopaths we don’t treat conditions, we treat people with conditions."
He said with only about 480 osteopaths in the New Zealand, finding funding for any research was an issue.
Minister for Disability Issues and Associate Minister of Health Nicky Wagner said: "It is important to take an evidence-based approach to funding in all areas of health and the ministry keeps up-to-date on the latest research."
Knowing that three Wanaka boys diagnosed with ASD were more settled and happier in themselves as a result of her treatment was "extremely rewarding" for Ms Poole, but she was still hopeful of one day securing funding for a formal study into treating autism with osteopathy.
It was universally agreed that no two people with autism were alike but as Mark’s mother said: "Even if osteopathy only worked for a small number of people with ASD, isn’t the research worth it for the sake of improving their lives and the lives of the care givers?"
Osteopathy — what is it?
Osteopaths are primary health care practitioners who recognise the link between the structure of the body and the way it functions. Osteopathy is a form of manual medicine which facilitates healing by focusing on how the skeleton, joints, muscles, nerves, circulation, connective tissue and internal organs function as a holistic unit.
— Osteopathy NZ