A powerful therapy for kids with special needs 

Jake Sweet arrives poolside at First Street Fitness center in Bellevue, strapped in a complicated wheelchair that overwhelms his slight frame. His mom, Beverly Sweet of Bothell, lifts the 20-year-old, whose cerebral palsy renders him unable to walk or sit up on his own, and awkwardly yet gently passes him down to the arms of aquatic therapist Harriet Ott waiting in the warm pool.

Floating in the water, free of the metal chair and safety belts and supported by floats and Ott's arms, Jake's face erupts into a smile of unmistakable joy.

Supporting Jake in her arms, Ott swirls and sways the young man in the water. He expresses his happiness at intervals -- guttural cries punctuated with smiles.

The support, movement and stretches Ott provides for Jake in the water make up a practice called Watsu, an aquatic therapy treatment developed in the 1980s by Seattle native Harold Dull, a massage therapist and poet, at Harbin Hot Springs in northern California.

Watsu works with the buoyant support of water as a kind of three-dimensional massage where the recipient is floated and stretched in a warm pool. The technique is based on the land massage known as Zen Shiatsu (water+Shiatsu=Watsu). Initially designed primarily as a relaxation technique, Watsu over the years has been found to have positive therapeutic effects for special needs adults and children -- particularly those with musculoskeletal, neurological and immune-system disorders. Today, Watsu is an official aquatic therapy modality performed by certified practitioners.

Watsu treatment helps Jake -- who has severely contracted muscles in his arms and legs -- relax his limbs, making it easier for his mom to dress and care for him, along with many other benefits. The increased flexibility lasts well after Jake has left the pool.

Says Sweet, "Water gives Jake a freedom that he doesn't have from lying on the floor, or being in his wheelchair or any other place, and he loves it. It feels so good."

Sweet explains that she and Jake appreciate the Watsu and other water-therapy techniques used by Ott because physical therapy on land can be a chore for Jake. The water adds elements of playfulness and relaxation.

"Jake gets that physical therapy part of it without it feeling like therapy. It helps Jake with his muscle tone, sleep, appetite and bowel movements," Sweet explains. "It's so nice to see his body working for him, and it's fun."

Water therapy as an alternative treatment

For parents who want to try an alternative therapy to promote improved health and quality of life for their children with special health care needs, Watsu and related water therapies can be an excellent choice for a variety of reasons. Watsu is a natural alternative to drug treatments that may be of concern to some parents due to side effects or unknown long-term health effects. The practice also can supplement a drug regimen.

Through the buoyancy of the water and greater access to the body, a Watsu practitioner can accomplish stretches in the water that can't be accomplished on land. The aquatic environment also can provide a feeling of freedom and confidence for special needs children who are in wheelchairs, reliant on crutches or otherwise impeded in their movement on land due to their health condition. Perhaps most of all, kids view the water as a place for fun.

"Most kids don't see it as 'we have to go to therapy,'" Sweet says. "They see it as 'we're going swimming!'"

Healing properties of water

Physiologically, just the act of being submerged in warm water can provide immediate health benefits. Practitioner Ott notes that improvement in circulation is one of the most dramatic results, as she witnesses feet and hands of patients go from purple to a more healthy pink, just from being in the water.

"I haven't done anything yet and have already accomplished improved heart function, decreased blood pressure, improved circulation -- that's phenomenal all by itself," Ott explains.

Adding Watsu to the benefits of buoyancy is powerful. Time and again, Ott witnesses dramatic results in her special needs clients due to the water environment's ability to reduce pain and increase mobility.

Inadequate facilities

If there is a downside to Ott's practice, it is the lack of facilities in which she can work. Optimally, Watsu requires water at 94 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, while the temperature of most public pools is kept in the 80s. Among limited choices, Ott has been able to build her Watsu practice using the therapy pool at the Bellevue Aquatic Center, the warm-water pool at First Street Fitness in Bellevue, and a privately contracted above-ground pool.

In addition to wanting more warm pools available for Watsu, Ott wishes more facilities would be designed with special needs people in mind.

"Lots of mistakes are made in building pools in terms of how to make them accessible," Ott says. "Facilities are challenging, but where there's a will there's a way."

A pool of her own

Watsu practitioner Liz Bart built her own therapy pool and water therapy business, Soothing Waters, at her home in Bow, just north of Mount Vernon. Bart also is a credentialed special-education instructor, and she combines her Watsu practice with swimming lessons for children with and without special health care needs. Her business is open seven months of the year.

Bart has developed a passion for the water and for the therapeutic, calming and confidence-building results she has seen with young clients who have a variety of special needs.

Bart has Watsued 8-year-old Thor Knutzen of Burlington, for two years to relax tight muscles that result from his rare form of muscular dystrophy and to help the youngster, who is also a heart transplant recipient, gain fitness benefits from water exercise.

"You can just hear when he comes out of the water, this big sigh of "ahhhhhh," says Thor's mom, Stephanie Knutzen.

Knutzen comments that Thor's ability to perform all activities improves the more he can be in the water.

"We find a big difference when Thor is spending time in the water," Knutzen says. "It just completely helps him to relax his muscles and gives him physical activity where it doesn't hurt him."

Watsu at home

Watsu practitioner Kathy Bateman is a proponent of Watsu performed in home spas -- a practice that Watsu founder Harold Dull has termed "Home Spa Watsu." A therapy pool staff member at Seattle Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, Bateman has provided Watsu to children with special needs since 1999. Her writing on the subject is included in the most recent version of Dull's seminal book, Watsu: Freeing the Body in Water.

Bateman explains that parents might want to consider learning Home Spa Watsu for their special needs children who suffer from chronic pain or muscle stiffness, and who could benefit from more frequent Watsu treatments.

"Lots of families have hot tubs at their homes, and [their kids] would be able to receive this treatment at home if someone was trained to work with them," Bateman says.

Bateman and Dull have begun a project to fund the development of Home Spa Watsu training facilities at California's Harbin Hot Springs, where trainers can learn how to teach Watsu to parents for use in home spas and hot tubs.

Rhonda Aronwald is a Seattle-based communications consultant and freelance writer with a child in elementary school.

Additional Resources

Selected Watsu practitioners who work with children with special health care needs:


General information: watsu.com


Originally published in the September, 2006 print edition of ParentMap

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