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Around the Columns

Therapy on ice

autistic ice skating

Physical therapy doctoral student Victoria Sommerer, left, takes her skills to the ice in Jefferson City, Mo., where she works with special-needs children. Photo by Nicholas Benner

Despite the workload of polishing off a doctorate in physical therapy at MU, Victoria Sommerer makes time to carry on a family tradition started by her mother, Ginger Sommerer. She and Ginger, a court reporter, work with special-needs children in an unusual setting: an ice rink in their hometown of Jefferson City, Mo. 

Since 2000, up to 10 youngsters a year ranging in age from 8 to 15 have spent 30 minutes a week learning to skate and rehearsing routines for an annual ice show. Ginger helped start the program, partly for her son, Matt, who has autism. Victoria has been there all along and now works to expand the program by enlisting more volunteers from the ranks of her fellow students. She also uses her education as a therapist to formalize assessments and rewards for skaters as they reach new milestones. 

Working with special-needs youngsters presents specific challenges, Victoria says. These skaters deal with conditions including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism. “One of our kids can’t walk, but we try to get him to sit up in a sled to work on neck and abdominal control,” she says. 

“Oftentimes the task is just getting a child to move on the ice and enjoy their time,” she says. “Fear is a problem. One boy with autism wanted to hold on to two people the whole time, and he would not budge. So, we tempted him to skate for a stuffed animal we put on the ice, and we challenged him by pretending the hockey lines were hot lava so he had to step over them. He loved that.”

Seeing growth is Victoria’s reward. “Sometimes progress can be slow, but it’s great because we see improvement by the end of the year. I know it’s good for them, too.”