Ava Curran bubbles with excitement every time she gets in her sporty gray BMW i8 with her name painted across the hood in pink. Her face splits with a smile as she claps and pushes the start button. She is 19 months old.
“It’s an excellent tool to help younger kids get the urge to explore,” says Curran’s mother, Kimberly Finn. “She gets excited when it moves.”
Curran has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes low muscle tone and, often, delayed development. She does not crawl yet, but through a University of Delaware program called Go Baby Go, she has learned to drive. Her car, a battery-operated toy modified for Curran, is more than just a fun ride, though. It is therapy. Driving the car helped develop Curran’s strength to sit up while also sparking her sense of wonder, Finn says.
“There’s been a drastic change in her,” says Finn. In the few months since Curran got her car, she has grown more curious about her surroundings, and she looks for new ways to explore. “It helps her cognition,” Finn says. “She’s become a force to be reckoned with.”
That reaction is exactly what pediatric physical therapist James C. “Cole” Galloway was trying to produce when he founded Go Baby Go.
The program started in 2006, when Galloway, then a fairly new professor at the university, was trying to find a way to help nonmobile children get moving. He knew crawling triggered a wave of cognitive development in babies. Children who couldn’t move themselves around—those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and some with autism, for example—were at an extreme developmental disadvantage. There weren’t even wheelchairs for children younger than 3 years old. Now there are cars and, for kids who outgrow them, a special harness system that can be installed in any home to help people around.
“Everyone out there has the same giant processor of a brain,” Galloway says. “Put them in an enriched environment and it can’t help but get stronger.”
Ava Curran enjoys her battery-operated BMW as her
UD professor James C. “Cole” Galloway, a pediatric
An enriched environment is one that is full of stimuli—nooks to explore and sights and scents to experience. It is not sitting in one place. Even carrying a child around isn’t the same for the brain.
A partnership with one of the university engineers birthed a prototype ride-on robot that lets a toddler direct his own movement, but the vehicle looked like a giant ride-on vacuum cleaner, and it’s $10,000 price tag made it a nonstarter for most parents.
Then Galloway walked into a toy store to buy a birthday present. When he passed an aisle filled with colorful, battery-powered toddler cars, the headlights in his brain started flashing. Could something so simple be the answer? He called other therapists and interns in his department. Together they took all the cars on the shelves, then started examining them.
A clerk asked him what they were doing. “We’re having a board meeting, of course,” Galloway answered. Using practical found items, like pool noodles, PVC pipe, foam bodyboards, and some hooks and snaps, the team modified a car so a child with a disability, maybe one with poor muscle tone, could sit up and drive. The kids could drive an exciting toy race car for a couple hundred dollars instead of riding a boring $10,000 robot.
“Fun is key here,” Galloway says. “It ignites active engaged play from adults and peers. When your main goal is mobility and socialization of young children and their families, you can’t ask for better collaborators than Barbie and Lightning McQueen,” the race car from the Pixar movie “Cars.”
In addition to making kids stronger and more adventuresome, it also helps them socially. A person who would shy away from a kid in a wheelchair has no problem talking to a cute kid in a toy sports car. “It has a bright pink roll bar. It draws attention,” Finn says.
Today, Go Baby Go cars are getting attention from New York to Singapore. Anyone can download free plans from the Internet, then make their own car.
“Mobility is a human right,” says Galloway, whose office looks like a toy company and hardware store collided and the pieces fell into bins around him.
One of his favorite stories is of a woman who broke down in tears after telling her preschooler to come back to her as he rode away in his new car. “That’s the first time I’ve ever said that,” she told Galloway.
Most people would be happy with their accomplishments, little cars everywhere that could change the lives of some 300,000 children a year, but not the Go Baby Go team. They realized children outgrow the cars, but not the need for mobility and stimuli. So Go Baby Go introduced a harness system to help the children stand, walk and jump without the use of crutches or wheelchairs. Go Baby 2.0 is popping up in houses around New Castle County and in the Go Baby Café at the university, to keep the clients’ momentum going.
Xander Brewer-Ley is one who has kept moving. Born with a tethered spine and spinal cord damage that causes weakness in his legs, he became, at 3, one of the early Go Baby Go car recipients. His custom ATV would activate only when he stood—a trick that strengthened his legs. Before the ATV, he lagged behind his friends on the playground at preschool. With the ATV, the other kids had to run to keep up.
Xander Brewer-Ley plays Xbox with the help of a harness.
Now a second-grader at Downes Elementary in Newark, Brewer-Ley has moved up to a harness to help his physical therapy—and to improve his Xbox soccer game. Suspended by what Galloway calls a glorified shower curtain and bungee cords, Brewer-Ley jumps up and down to the rhythm of his own laughter. By tightening the cords, he can mount a yoga ball to run around his family room. During therapy, he resembles a superhero. His favorite exercise is pulling the harness strings enough to lift himself off the floor. Legs back, he tips forward, then sails across the room, flying in true superhero style.
It takes superhero stamina to keep up with Galloway. His brain and body operate full-steam ahead all the time. A half-hour talk could cover the two dozen new ideas he had that day. His child-like enthusiasm and energy make the fit between his long list of very serious degrees and simple toys make sense.
His work is serious, but he is not.
“We’re trying to put this program on steroids,” he says of the harness system. His goal is to outfit an entire house in the next year. “It’s so simple, I’m embarrassed to show it to engineers.”
Sitting in an office is not his style. He believes one of the keys to the success of Go Baby Go is getting out in the real world. He spends his time with clients and people who live the problems he’s trying to fix, listening to their concerns and questions and asking for their suggestions.
“Until you do things for real, it doesn’t all come together,” Galloway says. “Most clinicians don’t know how you live your life.”
Simulating reality in a rehab facility isn’t the same as living reality, he says. The Go Baby Café is an example of the Galloway thought process. It is a real café, with a real menu, real food and real customers. The only difference is the “employees.” The chefs and servers at the café have all survived traumatic brain injuries that hamper their mobility. They work with therapists by their sides while using the harness system to complete orders, make salads and sandwiches, dip ice cream and collect money.
It’s one of the happiest places in the world for Corey Beattie.
Beattie, 24, dreamed of being a chef until a car accident the week before her 18th birthday left her with a traumatic brain injury. For six years, Beattie has relearned to talk, walk and live life. Many things have changed, but not her desire to cook. In the harness system at the café, Beattie is able to once again take to the stove.
Marie and Corey Beattie enjoy their kitchen.
“I knew I’d be in my element,” Beattie says. She has even used her harness system to cook and serve a complete Italian dinner to her neighbors.
Since starting harness therapy almost a year ago, Beattie has increased the distance she can walk without stopping from 400 feet to more than 1,500. Her temperament has improved, and she has regained more movement in her left hand, now that she doesn’t need to use it to help her balance.
Perhaps the most impressive change, though, can’t be seen on the outside. At the beginning of her training at the café, she was tested for cognitive ability. Results showed she was functioning at the level of a 10-year-old. After two months in the harness, she tested at 15.
“This is so I can live a happy life,” says Beattie, who uses a harness system in the kitchen and bedroom of her home. It gives her freedom to help with household chores that she hasn’t been able to do for six years. She might be the only young adult in the country who is happy about folding laundry and putting it away.
The Go Baby Go mission is “to get all people exploring the world via independent mobility.” Finding new ways for that success is a constant effort. Working in an environment that includes piles of toys, rows of computers, yards of wire and pipe—even some princess and superhero outfits—the team continues to look for more answers.
In other words, for all its tremendous progress, the team still has miles to go.