Celebrating Small Victories

Children with severe disabilities are treated with compassion at local public school and privately owned therapy center

(page 2 of 3)

Richard Linck

PlayBig owners and founders Kelley Hutto and Rachel Scharlepp, are making a big impact in the community by providing developmental and behavioral therapies to 200 local children. Their expertise and caring nature lead the way.


PlayBig’s successes with achieving small victories that have big consequences for children with autism and other neurological conditions is due to their novel treatment approach, which combines traditional and cutting-edge therapies.

“PlayBig is the first therapy practice in the nation to integrate developmental therapies with behavioral health therapies in its model — which has had profound results for our young patients and their families,” says Rachel Scharlepp, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and PlayBig’s co-owner.

At last count, PlayBig averaged more than 120 therapy sessions per day. In one month, PlayBig therapists — referred to as “coaches” — treat almost 200 individual children — “athletes.”

“Big movement, vestibular, swinging, fine motor skills, speech therapy — we want big results here, big effect, big emotion, big movement, big communication,” says Hutto.

PlayBig utilizes big expertise, too: Under one roof, the therapy practice brings together 23 licensed physical and occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, behavioral health therapists and targeted case managers, each of whom is dedicated to helping PlayBig athletes reach their full potential. 

PlayBig also offers a learning center, which provides tutoring.

“We schedule a three- or four-hour session, so a child can go from one therapy to another therapy to another, as ready,” says Hutto. “We are synergistic in our … interdisciplinary approach, (which) offers optimum impact. It’s like getting triple the therapy in one day’s session.”

She explains that a child who does not attend PlayBig may be scheduled for physical therapy (PT) at a facility on a Monday. Then, maybe on Wednesday, the child would go for mental health therapy somewhere else. Speech therapy might be a day or two later, etc.

“When a child goes to mental health therapy for a one-hour appointment, the therapist may get 10 minutes of good work, because the child wants to swing or play,” Hutto says. “When they are at PlayBig, they finish with PT, occupational therapy and maybe speech therapy, and then the therapist will take them by the hand and say, ‘Let’s go to the playroom,’ for mental health therapy. The child will then get a full, productive hour of mental health therapy, because he or she is ready.”

All of the coaches at PlayBig are on the same team as an athlete. For example, the physical therapist knows what the speech therapist is working on, so the physical therapist communicates to the speech therapist that the child said something today while playing. If the child is dropped off at 9 a.m. and is picked up at noon, he or she has had three therapies. The last therapist knows what was done with the other two and can discuss it and plan for the next session.

“Since we are all on the floor,” Hutto says, “if a coach/athlete combination would like to use another coach/athlete combination for peer interaction, they can. Peer interaction is crucial.”

PlayBig’s approach to treating autism is very different from Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), an approach Hutto describes as training or drilling, or like learning from flash cards.

“Some will say ABA’s the only proven method for treating autism. Well that’s just not so,” Hutto says. “We do it naturally. Children with autism … are more like regular kids than unlike. Our approach is much more relationship-based, experienced-based. ABA has a place, but it doesn’t treat autism. ABA modifies behavior, but that’s just treating a symptom of autism, not the disability itself. ASD is not a behavioral disability.”

PlayBig utilizes neuroplasticity-based therapy, which has, at its core, the understanding that the brain is more plastic than porcelain. 

“Neurons that fire together wire together,” Hutto says. “We can build circuitry. Ten years ago, scientists found that there are … neurons waiting in the memory part of the brain, just waiting to be engaged. If they’re not engaged for 21 days, they wither and die. What engages neurons? Big movement, big communication.”

According to Hutto, neuroplasticity-based therapy has application not only for children, but also for the aged population suffering from Alzheimer’s and degenerative diseases. The treatment is very similar to stroke rehab. During a stroke, oxygen is restricted from the brain, and neurons and brain cells die.

“They don’t just tell the stroke patient she’ll never walk again,” Hutto says. “No, they create new neural pathways. They force the pathways.”

Obviously passionate about her topic, Hutto further explains, “What we say is, ‘We’re going to keep sending big sensory motor information through any channel — the seven senses and then some. We’ll keep pushing and pressing and forcing information. We’re going to keep sending it and sending it and sending it, through the body, through emotions and through movement, and we’ll keep making those neurons fire and build new circuitry.” She gestures towards the numerous swings and a giant trampoline that are set up in a large, gym-like area. “You want to get a child talking, put him on a swing.”

Swinging and jumping on a trampoline helps autistic and neurologically challenged children in multiple ways.

“First, big movement changes brain chemistry,” Hutto says. “It gives more dopamine and serotonin, and you feel better. It improves balance and gaze stability, which help a child to be able to sit in a chair and focus. Swinging and jumping on a trampoline works on the vestibular system in the inner ear. These activities help in processing sound, because they share the same nerve and travel the same pathways.”

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