Therapy tool
Toy Hot Wheels car helps therapy patients make strides

By Laurie Arendt - News Graphic Correspondent

Dec. 15, 2015

 Eleanor Schumacher has made significant progress in physical therapy related to her cerebral palsy diagnosis, thanks to her use of a modified Hot Wheels car that helps promote certain types of movement.
Photo by Laurie Arendt

Eleanor Schumacher might not quite be ready to walk yet, but thanks to a toy car, some PVC pipe and some ingenious re-jiggering, the 19-month-old girl is learning some very important concepts at Ozaukee Therapy Services in Mequon.

“We first suspected that something wasn’t right when she wasn’t really hitting her developmental milestones,” said her mother, Connie Schumacher. “She was really having some difficulties with her gross motor skills – she couldn’t really sit up by herself.”

Eleanor was about a year old when she received her cerebral palsy diagnosis. At the time, her mobility was limited to “army crawling,” where she pulled herself along with her arms and let her legs drag behind her.

At a recent therapy session with Ozaukee Therapy physical therapist Stephanie Annen, Eleanor read a book, played with assorted toys and scooped beans in a large tray. And at the very end? She climbed in the Hot Wheels car and drove it around the room.

“What the car does is really promote certain kinds of movement,” said Annen. “When Eleanor first started coming for therapy, she really wasn’t mobile. She really had to rely on her mom or dad to move her from place to place – she wasn’t experiencing the concept of how to get from Point A to Point B on her own. The car enables her to do that.”

While the Ozaukee Therapy Hot Wheels car started out like those found in virtually any neighborhood with children, it has undergone some modifications, thanks to Annen’s husband and brother.

“They definitely made some important changes,” she said. “I wanted the kids to be able to drive the car just by pushing a button, though they can still use the pedal. They also incorporated some additional safety features.”

The toy, which was donated by Annen’s boss, now has PVC rails around the sides and can also accommodate a car seat to help support those kids who aren’t able to sit on their own.

“Its ability to go in reverse has been removed, too,” said Annen.

Her idea to incorporate a toy car is based on a program at the University of Delaware called “Go Baby Go.” Started in 2006, the program initially focused on providing specially designed robots for children to propel using joysticks. The program quickly evolved into specially designed cars for children with disabilities.

Children participating in the program at the University of Delaware, as well as other similar programs throughout the country, are at increased risk for mobility-related developmental delays. These are not just physical, but can also impact a child’s cognitive, language and social development.

University of Delaware researchers were able to quantify improvements in these developmental areas – along with physical development – among the children participating in the program. Children also gained better mastery of their own physical abilities, and became less dependent on the devices for movement.

That has been the case for Eleanor.

“It’s been a challenge to find activities that she can do on her own,” said her mom. “We really couldn’t take her to the park, for example, because she couldn’t do the other things children her age could do. This has given her a little independence; she is actually the person driving the car.”

According to Annen, Eleanor has diplegic cerebral palsy, which primarily affects her legs. Her preferred method of sitting is in a “w” shape, and her leg muscles are stiff and tight. Her therapy program, along with help from Mom and Dad at home, is helping strengthen her legs and introduce her to new ways of holding and moving her body. With a little more therapy, Annen expects Eleanor to walk.

“At some point, Eleanor could also eventually drive the car using the foot pedal, instead of the button on the steering wheel,” said Annen. “She’s not quite there yet, but it’s entirely possible. That motion and using her legs will also help her progress to walking.”

Annen said that the car is suitable for children with a number of challenges, from cerebral palsy to Down’s syndrome and other forms of ataxia.

“Really, it is a just a good tool for children with neuromuscular disorders,” she said. “It provides them with an experience that they can’t easily get elsewhere.”

Annen would like to develop the program further to provide cars for families to take home as part of their therapy. She welcomes donations of cars that local families have outgrown and/or donations to purchase cars for the families she works with.

“The retrofit process is fairly inexpensive and not difficult to do, now that we’ve figured it out,” she said. “It costs about $20 a car for the materials.”

Families interested in donating their unwanted cars or supporting the program can reach Annen at 241-8030.