Exploring the world. Being curious. Learning cause and effect. Many people likely take for granted how important these skills and abilities are for infants as they transition into toddlers. For kids with special needs who have mobility delays, exploration and learning can also be delayed when a child isn’t able to move independently. Enter adapted cars.
Professors at the University of Delaware (UD) developed the concept of adapting regular toy store children’s ride-on cars so that kids with special needs could experience what it’s like to move on their own, just like their peers. The cars typically come with a small finger switch that a child has to continuously hold down in order for the car to move. This being too difficult for a child with special needs to maneuver, the small switch is removed and the car is rewired so that it will move forward by holding down a large round switch.
Kristi Allison, Heartland AEA physical therapist, and other AEA physical therapists from around the state learned about the UD’s “Go Baby Go” research at their annual conference a few years ago. “The point of the conference was that you should find a way to get kids who are delayed to move independently at the same time as their peers are moving,” Allison said. “The car can be used as a way to teach independent movement. Before kids can crawl and walk, they can explore.”
Ironically, in December 2012 Allison gave birth to her daughter, Anna, who has Down syndrome. Allison and her family adapted their own “Tow Mater” ride-on car, and Anna began driving when she was only 4-months-old.
“I sent the video of Anna driving to the Go Baby Go people, and they told me that they think she was their youngest driver yet,” Allison said. “She was rear facing and then turned around at 6-months-old. In September we took the seat (a special larger seat) off and just put her in the car. We added the frame recently, so she didn’t tumble out.”
Allison sent Anna’s driving videos to the other Heartland AEA physical therapists and showed them Anna’s car, and an idea was sparked—to build cars that would be available to any child in the Agency’s service area who could benefit from using one. This past fall, the therapists came together for a day and built three cars that area families can try out for themselves. An additional car was added to the inventory, so four cars are now available for families to checkout for at least six weeks at a time.
One family who has benefited from using a car is the Pommrehns, who adapted a Tow Mater for their son, Aedyn, 3, after he responded positively to the one he borrowed from the AEA. Aedyn has Emanual syndrome, a rare chromosome imbalance that includes multiple medical issues and global developmental delay.
“Aedyn loves his Mater,” Cindy Pommrehn says. “He doesn’t crawl, so finding ways for him to be mobile and independent are challenging.”
Besides the smiles and giggles that Aedyn has shown, Pommrehn says she has seen progress in her son’s cognition, balance and sitting. “We see him consistently activate the switch (when early-on he didn’t realize the switch made the car go),” Pommrehn said. “Now he wants to activate the switch before we even have him all the way fastened in. He loves to go round and round in the house and also loves to use it outside. We’ve found that his time in Mater is almost therapeutic for him, as he’s also done quite a bit better with balance and sitting.”
Tabitha Meyers’ daughter, Sabrina, has also driven one of the Agency’s Tow Mater cars. Meyers reports that the car has helped Sabrina become more comfortable being outside. “She loves to go outside now,” Meyers said. “She has never been a fan of the outdoors, but now she is able to go as she pleases and see the world from the view she should be seeing it.”
Meyers is also thankful that Sabrina has gotten the chance to use this special type of car. “(I’m) very thankful (that’s she’s gotten to use the car),” she said. “I want her to be as independent as she can. She doesn’t have the muscle strength yet to crawl or walk, so having the car allows her to stop and go and to be in control.”
“Anybody who you know is going to have a delay in their mobility would benefit from being able to drive a car,” Allison concludes. “Besides just exploring and learning, kids realize ‘I can move and get around by myself.’ There’s the cause and effect and there’s the processing of being in a car that’s moving. Those are all things that you don’t get when you’re immobile.”
In the Media
The adapted cars recently caught the attention of WHO-TV 13 and the Des Moines Register, which both featured stories about the benefits of the cars for kids with disabilities. Click the graphics to see and read those stories.