After a chaotic birth during Hurricane Katrina and time in a neonatal intensive care unit, a baby boy ended up blind with cerebral palsy and autism. Despite his disabilities, a short time in therapy revealed that the boy was extremely gifted in music, and could play almost anything.
“We taught the parents to work with his gifts,” says Lucy Jane Miller, Ph.D., founder of STAR Institute in Greenwood Village. “They can’t make the cerebral palsy or autism go away, but they can go away happy,” she says. This is the goal for all patients seeking help at STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), alongside learning how to cope with the challenges of their sensitivities.
Who They Serve
Individuals with SPD are over-responsive to stimulation—they might lash out, throw a tantrum or exhibit other such responses as a result of unpredictable sounds, lights, touch or movement. It’s common in kids on the autism spectrum as well as gifted students, and a study shows that about one in every 20 children’s lives is affected by SPD. While some people can adapt to SPD, if it affects daily functions and gets in the way of having a normal life, STAR Institute can help.
At the institute, the majority of patients are children up to age 12. The adult program is growing, too, as Miller finds that about 80 percent of kids with SPD have at least one parent with similar tendencies. People come from around the globe to be treated at STAR Institute—about 40 percent of the patients are not local. They also offer evaluations that would be followed up by therapy from another doctor elsewhere.
Just this year, the STAR Institute was formed by merging the SPD Foundation and the STAR Center. This allows SPD research to be combined with the treatment program and is a step toward showing the effectiveness of SPD treatment. All patients have the opportunity to participate in the institute’s research with parent permission.
The Institute also offers a robust education program with 70 online courses and a certification in SPD, so adults can ‘take the knowledge back and train people where they live,” Miller says.
STAR Institute treats 550-600 families per year. Professional staff recommends and administers intensive “bursts of therapy” for varying fees, based on the person’s individual needs. This short-term therapy usually means three to five sessions per week for about 30 sessions.
“We have a different model—a lot of places do the same therapies with every child,” Miller says. “Parents participate in every session. You don’t have to give parents a ‘recipe” for what to do when they already have learned a process for relating to their children.”
For example, if a child needs to work on separating from his or her parent, therapists might play a game of hide and seek with the parent and child. “We use play to teach complicated processes,” Miller says. “It’s fun, and if the kids are laughing, they”ll want to come back.”
STAR also claims ‘the world’s best sensory playground,” and has received a garden grant for the next three years, so they can offer various forms of treatment outside.
Whatever the form of individualized care, “I tell parents to spend an equal amount of time on their children’s gifts as their problems,” Miller says. “We try to help parents look at children from a common sense viewpoint. It is a way of thinking and problem solving, and once they learn it, they know it.”