By Ethan Lichtenberg
In the heart of Trinity lies a string of doctors’ offices and medical buildings. A seemingly casual area that goes about its business. It may not appear that anything too special is going on. But the work happening in office number 1816 is nothing short of a miracle. Within those walls is a woman who wants to change the idealities of modern motor and sensory therapy. She is ushering in a new wave of therapy to show that those who cannot communicate with speech may actually be the smartest among us. She hopes to refocus the lens through which people with autism are viewed and to show the world that her clients have so much to offer.
Dana Johnson, Ph.D., M.S., OTR/L, is an occupational therapist who specializes in working with children and adults with motor and sensory differences, including autism, apraxia, and other developmental differences. Dr. Johnson started her private practice in 2010. She is also the founder of Invictus Academy Tampa Bay, a private non-profit school serving students K through 12. Dana is working to change the mindset of those who believe that these individuals cannot reach their goals. The spectrum of autism is broad and complicated. Some people with motor and sensory differences are well integrated into society but may struggle in social situations. The clients Dr. Johnson sees are on the opposite end. Most have been labeled as “low-functioning” – mainly because they are not able to communicate with their speech.
Dr. Johnson has been a clinician since 2006 and now has a wide range of clients ranging in age from 3 to 35. The common challenge most of her clients face is difficulty with behavior, and many cannot communicate reliably through speech. When asked why she chose this field, Dana says “I wanted to change the typical perceptions of autism and I felt the need to help people understand how smart those with autism and similar diagnoses truly are.” She has taken great strides in her field, and because of that, she now speaks statewide and nationally at medical seminars and events.
The concept of Presuming Competence is not only central to her practice, it is her motto. “Presuming competence means that I believe ALL individuals can think, learn and understand. Too often, my clients are marginalized and viewed as intellectually delayed because they are unable to communicate through speech or demonstrate what they know. Nobody should have to prove that they are smart. We don’t assume incompetence for typical people so why do we tend to do this with autistic individuals?” Dr. Johnson continues to advocate for nonspeaking individuals everywhere.
What Does Interplay Do?
To increase the motor and sensory abilities of her clients, Dr. Johnson uses fitness and functional movement exercises. She says, “the feedback I receive from my clients is that the harder they work out, the more it enables them to move their bodies more purposefully. It also can decrease anxiety significantly.” She even puts her clients through CrossFit workouts which is a combination of cardio and strength exercises built to develop all parts of the body simultaneously in a practical way. Dana completed her Level 1 CrossFit certification so that she could ensure safety and an individualized program for her clients. Her workouts are a radical concept in the field of autism, as most occupational therapy interventions focus primarily on sensory integration therapy. Current research in the field of autism points to it as a movement disorder rather than a cognitive disorder — exercise and functional movement help to build new motor pathways so that the body can function more purposefully.
Many of Dr. Johnson’s clients are non-speaking or are unreliable speakers and her focus on supporting movement extends to their ability to communicate. Speech is a motor task and not a cognitive task. Typically, we associate those who have limited speech as intellectually or cognitively delayed, which is often incorrect. By practicing and building gross motor skills, non-speaking individuals can communicate, which opens up a whole new world for them and their caregivers.
Spelling to Communicate (S2C) is a form of Assistive Technology that supports individuals who are non-speaking or unreliably speaking. S2C teaches purposeful motor skills to point to letters to spell as a reliable form of communication. Current research suggests that those with autism and other sensory-motor differences have inefficient motor and sensory feedback to coordinate their brain and body to work together purposefully. We call this the “brain-body disconnect.” With practice and alongside rigorously trained and skilled practitioners, individuals become more fluent and build new motor pathways between the brain and body. As a result, purposeful motor skills improve, and individuals move from pointing to letters to typing on the keyboard. Responses also move from concrete to more abstract allowing for individual expression and original thoughts from the speller.
Because Dr. Johnson combines S2C with fitness, her clients begin to develop more purposeful motor skills for their daily tasks, working in the community, and, most importantly, communication. Behavioral challenges and anxiety also decrease as a result of improved brain and body connections. Dr. Johnson took out a laminated piece of paper with the alphabet, some symbols, and numbers on it. This is what her clients use to communicate and engage in conversations. With 26 letters, there are infinite possibilities! Remember, some of her clients were written off as completely unable to communicate. With her efforts, she has flipped that into what she calls “some of the smartest people I know.”
I asked Dr. Johnson what the future holds for Interplay Therapy Center, to which she responded: “I want the community to know about how important communication is for everyone – communication is a right. To support communication, we need to realize that those with sensory and motor differences like autism and apraxia need to work on purposeful movement to support their goals. We work on purposeful movement through fitness and S2C.” Her clients are an extraordinary group of humans who dream, live, and wish just like everyone else. They have a disability, but it does not define them. Dana hopes to continue to speak nationwide at events and for her clinic to grow exponentially. She also wants to continue to teach others about non-speaking individuals so that the community can embrace their abilities. Support is what the field needs.
Dr. Johnson works to support not only her clients but their parents and family members while educating other medical professionals. Those who are affected by motor and sensory differences are not unable to communicate; they communicate differently. Though I wish I could have spent more time with Dr. Johnson and her clients, my experience with her has opened my eyes to the kind of people our community has to offer. She is an inspiration and is leading the way to improve methods of communication for those with motor and sensory differences.
Dr. Dana L. Johnson Ph.D., M.S., OTR/L (727)-326-7791 firstname.lastname@example.org
1816 Health Care Dr, Trinity, FL 34655 Mon. – Fri. 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM