Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain but exponents of conductive education believe that children with the disorder have the potential to move independently, each to a different extent.
“The brain is so flexible and there are so many opportunities to make new connections and learn new functions,” asserts Alexandra Major-Bacskai, a conductor-teacher who came to Malaysia to run conductive education classes at the Step and Smile Education Centre about four years ago.
Conductive education classes are held in a group setting – a key component of the rehabilitation method. Working in a group and among friends goes a long way in bolstering confidence in the students, explains Major-Bacskai. And confidence is key in encouraging children to attempt new skills.
“When they first came here, most of these children are used to accepting help from their parents or caregivers. They are reluctant to try anything on their own.
"But after a few lessons, they gain confidence and realise that they can move on their own. They also become stronger and learn to figure out how they can use their bodies to perform various tasks.”
Being in a group also helps develop their social skills – not only do they cheer each other on, those who are more able help their friends out, says Major-Bacskai.
Encouragement and motivation are two core elements in every activity or exercise at the centre.
“When a typical baby learns to crawl, what leads him or her is the motivation. He crawls because he wants to get to his mummy or his toy. It’s the same with a child with cerebral palsy. They really want to get to their toys but then they discover that they cannot lift their head or move their legs.
“This gets frustrating and eventually, they learn not to want. It’s not that they are lazy or don’t want to try. They have tried many times but were unsuccessful; so they defend themselves by not wanting to try anymore.
“But in a group, everybody encourages each other. We make sure there is motivation ... when they crawl, they crawl for a toy or a book. We also give them feedback. We ask them what they have learnt at the end of the day and reinforce what they have achieved so that they know they have done a good job,” she says.
Izdihar Janna Adsly is a teenager who has recently learnt how to walk, after years of relying on help to perform her tasks.
“For me, the biggest improvement was how she figured out how to get out of bed and sit up all on her own. She figured that she could slide down from her bed and push herself against the bed into a sitting position. That is amazing. She’s also very social and is always the first to cheer on her friends,” says Major-Bacskai.
Janna loves going for her classes, says her mother Rafidah Ahmad. She wears a big smile when she arrives at the centre and always looks forward to outings with her friends.
“We were in two minds about sending Janna for the classes at first because we live quite far away in Semenyih (Selangor),” shares Rafidah.
“But Alexandra persuaded us to come for a few free trials. Janna responded positively almost immediately. Most apparently, she opened up and became more social. After seeing her flourish, we continued to come for class. She’s learnt so much but most of all, she has fun,” says Rafidah.
Alexandra Major-Bacskai recently published Emily Walks With Canes, a book about a girl with cerebral palsy to raise awareness about the disorder. She hopes the book will encourage people to talk openly about disability.