Climbing Therapy: A promising new approach to Speech Therapy for Children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions
The benefits of Rock Climbing to individuals with Autistic Spectrum Conditions has been known for some time. Rock Climbing is now emerging as a potential tool for developing communication and social skills.
What is Climbing Therapy
Occupational Therapists use Climbing as a form of therapy due to its benefits to typical area's of weakness in children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions. Climbing targets the vestibular system (balance), proprioception (spatial body awareness), muscle tone, gross and fine motor skills and interhemispheric integration (communication between the two sides of the brain).
Speech Therapists are now recognising the benefits of rock climbing for Children with Autism. An indoor rock climbing wall is an ideal environment to teach vital communication skills that are essential for positive interaction with others. Climbing sessions tend to be predictable and based on routines allowing children to feel safe and in control. Speech Therapists use photo social stories and visual schedules to help prepare children for the climbing sessions. The physical side of climbing makes it very engaging, motivating and helps to meet the child's sensory need for movement.
The link between motor skills and social development
The link between motor skills and social skills in Autism has been documented in numerous studies. Research has suggested that developing motor skills is crucial for children and can help them to develop better social skills. Scientists have recommended that motor skill development be incorporated into early interventions for children with Autism. However, Climbing Therapy by a qualified Speech Therapist is currently the only therapy available that works on motor skills and social skills simultaneously.
How does it work?
A typical Climbing Therapy programme consists of targeted games and activities to develop Social Communication, Emotional Understanding and Attention and Listening Skills.
Taking Emotional Understanding as an example, many children with Autism find it difficult to imagine and discuss abstract concepts such as emotions out of context. This means that working on Emotional Understanding in an office with a Speech Therapist can be difficult for a young person with Autism. In Climbing Therapy, the climbing wall provides an emotionally stimulating environment to discuss emotions in context, from the elation of completing a climb, nervousness at a difficult route or tiredness after a particularly long climb. Rather than identifying happy, sad, angry faces on worksheets, Games are used to help identify emotions, for example, 'climb to the happy face' and 'Wall Scrabble' to find hidden letters on a climbing wall as a method of introducing Emotional Vocabulary. Children are taught coping strategies to help manage anxiety when climbing and parents are supported to apply the same strategies in the home.
Climbing Therapy is also used to develop social skills, most commonly as part of a social skills group.
Research has found that typical social skills group interventions are only 'minimally effective'. Groups have been criticised for their contrived nature and anecdotal evidence indicates that many young people do not find the sessions engaging or motivating. In contrast at climbing social skills groups the social setting is naturalistic. The focus is not on the children's deficit in social skills, but their shared interest, and competence, at rock climbing. Climbing groups help children to develop their turn taking skills, provide scaffolding for conversations, build confidence and independence and nurture the development of new friendships. Climbing groups such as these are also a method of encouraging children with Autism to get out into the community and engage in age appropriate leisure activities.
Potential for Earlier Intervention and application to lower functioning children
Research shows that children who receive earlier and more comprehensive intervention had greater advancements in social communication symptoms. Traditional Social Skills groups or 1:1 Direct teaching of social skills tend to target older children with high functioning Autism or Aspergers Syndrome. Younger children or those towards the lower end of the Spectrum are often unable to successfully access speech therapy due to its high demand on their language abilities. Climbing Therapy can be used on children as young as three who would otherwise have to wait years for formal social skills training. Climbing Therapy also has potential to be used as a method of delivering Speech Therapy to pre or minimally verbal children who would otherwise have limited access to Social Skills interventions.
When finding a Therapist, ensure they are a qualified practitioner and are registered with the Health Care Professionals Council. You can check whether they are registered here. Ask whether there are any introductory offers or taster session to ascertain whether the therapy is right for your child. This gives your child a chance to see whether they enjoy rock climbing. You can find more information about The Therapy Adventure's Climbing Therapy programme here.
This blog is created by Hannah Broughton and Caspian Jamie. Caspian is a Private Speech Therapist and Hannah is a Child development Specialist We have our own company, The Therapy Adventure Limited and live in Ramsbottom, Manchester with our daughter.