THE DALLES, Ore. — Two years ago, Karen Erikson was praying for relief from the hell her life had become since her youngest child Jake was diagnosed with autism.
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"He would sit in a corner rocking, banging his head against the wall, biting himself, screaming uncontrollably," recalled Erikson, 41, who lives in the Columbia River Gorge town of Lyle, Wash. "Jake was withdrawn, detached from the world. He didn't speak and he wouldn't allow anyone to touch him."
A lot has changed in two years. Erikson sat on the living room couch during a recent interview and beamed as 3 1/2-year-old Jake — now talkative and friendly — played with his toys and ran up to guests to chat.
"Are you hungry?" Jake asked a visitor, displaying one of his toys for inspection. He bounded off to romp around on the floor with another guest.
"He would have never been able to tolerate this many people in a room before," Erikson said.
A notice in a December 2008 edition of the White Salmon Enterprise newspaper led Erikson to apply for Jake to take part in a research project on the use of qigong massage to treat childhood autism.
"They were seeking 65 kids from the Portland area and one from the gorge," Erikson said of the Qigong Sensory Training study — run by a Western Oregon University research team led by Dr. Louisa Silva.
Supervising Jake would be Pam Tindall, of Possibilities Consulting in White Salmon, Wash., a Silva-trained qigong massage therapist.
Results of the study, published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, are promising. For Jake, the results were nothing short of miraculous.
"I used to think, 'Will he ever be able to have a normal life?' " Erikson said. "Now I see him, hanging out with other kids at preschool, and he just blends in."
It was just two years since Oregon Health & Science University researchers, usually reluctant to diagnose children younger than 3 as autistic, diagnosed Jake because, "they said it could be nothing else," Erikson recalled.
Erikson could not take Jake grocery shopping because he would throw tantrums. He wouldn't speak or make eye contact with anyone. He wouldn't allow his mother or anyone else to touch him.
"He used to hate any sounds," Erikson said. "That fan that just turned on would have sent him running out screaming."
Qigong massage works on the premise that the primary problem in autism is a blockage of sensory information. Exactly why the blockage happens in the first place is a matter of national debate, but the WOU research study just deals with the matter at hand — releasing the blocked energies.
"Open the sensory pathways with qigong massage and the child quickly begins to receive coherent data from the senses," Silva said.
State education officials have yet to form an opinion on the treatment. "This is something that is new, and we do not have a position on it," said Eric Richards, director of operations for the Oregon Department of Education's special education division.
Tindall said the protocol is a type of patting motion more like a hands-on light touch session than a muscle-kneading massage. In the first round of patting, Tindall said she is clearing out energy blockages along the body's 12 primary meridians, or energy pathways as identified in Chinese medicine. Blocked energy is released and dissipated downward, through the feet.
Then she repeats the patting motion, this time with the intention of "filling" the unblocked empty spaces with fresh, vibrant energy. Other movements involve stretching out the arms and, finally, doing bicycle-like pedaling with the legs.
"Go faster," Jake said, clearly enjoying the bicycle pedaling, while Tindall holds his feet and follows along.
When she lays down his legs after the pedaling, Jake is calmer and seems happy to rest on his back.
During the five-month study that began in March 2009, Tindall worked on Jake twice a week for about 30 minutes per session. She also taught Erikson to do a daily 15-minute protocol at home. Erikson did it twice a day — once first thing in the morning and once at night.
"I started out just doing it at night, but I found if I did it in the morning, we had spectacular days," Erikson said.
About once a month, Erikson took Jake to the research study site in Portland, where he received another qigong session and staff evaluated his progress.
"I had taken him previously for occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy," Erikson said. "But it wasn't until we did the qigong that anything changed."
Tindall has since begun seeing five other clients in the gorge, with positive results. Older children are harder to treat because their energy blocks are larger and stronger but they still improve, Tindall said.
"I've never seen a child not progress," she said. "Some have never slept, and they begin sleeping, their digestion smooths out, their language development improves and they are able to form social connections."
Qigong massage sessions generally run about $50 each. Tindall said she also offers a sliding scale.
"Energy work is quick, has dramatic results, there's no special diet, no chemicals to take and it's not expensive," she said. "It allows the parents to work with the child, and it fits people's lifestyles better."
Erikson said she had no previous experience with Chinese medicine or the concept of "qi," the Chinese word for energy or life force, before she learned qigong.
But she said, in retrospect, she follows the same kind of process when she does rescue work to heal abused and blind ponies. Erikson said she realized that she approaches the ponies and senses their energy when she works on them. "I never knew what it was, but everything I did with horses, it was similar to what I do with Jake," Erikson said. "To me, it's all connected."
On the Net: For information on Qigong Sensory Training, see http://qsti.org.
Information from: The Dalles Chronicle, http://www.thedalleschronicle.com
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