Cynthia Vallance speaks with pride about Abigayle, her 11-year-old daughter.
“She’s a sprightly red-headed little doll,” Vallance said. “She is very social, very interactive, loves people.” Abbey Vallance also has cerebral palsy, and is prone to seizures. She is non-verbal, and uses a wheelchair.
“A lot of physical challenges come with cerebral palsy,” Vallance said. Abbey isn’t able to sit up on her own and needs help with all aspects of care.
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain and can occur during pregnancy, childbirth or after birth up to about age three. There is no scientifically proven cure.
Abbey has had major surgery for a dislocated hip, and earlier this year she had surgery to correct her scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.
Vallance first thought of yoga as a way to relieve the stress she knew Abbey was feeling around the surgery.
“As a mom, I’m always looking for a means of incorporating exercise and therapy in my daughter’s life,” Vallance said. “Prior to her surgery in May she was in a significant amount of pain.”
Vallance, who lives in Steveston with her husband Scott and Abbey, inquired at a nearby yoga studio about an instructor who might consider working with a child with disabilities. She was referred to Robyn Emde, a registered occupational therapist who also uses yoga therapy in her work.
Emde, who works part-time at Richmond General Hospital and has her own private practice, had previously worked as a caregiver to children with cerebral palsy.
Emde came to Vallance’s home to meet Abbey, and the two hit it off.
“One of the key ways of getting into Abbey’s soul is through music,” Vallance said.
Emde brought along a mixed CD that included music by the singer Enya, which pleased Abbey.
“There was an almost immediate connection,” Vallance said. “The first time I watched them together I was almost in tears. Robyn has an innate ability to carry a conversation with somebody who’s non-verbal. She reads their body language, tone of voice. The two of them have a little conversation going on. I’d never seen that kind of instantaneous connection with Abbey.”
From there, the therapist “worked very slowly, very cautiously.”
Emde talks constantly to Abbey during treatments, Vallance said.
“She tells her what she’s going to do, and my daughter responds. And that’s not something she does with everybody.”
Vallance said Emde works a lot on breathing.
“My daughter also has issues with anxiety. Robyn is able to calm Abbey down, and to put her in a space where she’s receptive to the therapy she’s doing with her. She uses a lot of the props or tools you would use in yoga, like bolsters.”
Emde’s exercise routines began with Abbey in her wheelchair. They moved to the floor, but Abbey wasn’t receptive to that, and now they do a set routine on her hospital-style bed.
Vallance said Emde has helped Abbey learn to stretch. And Vallance is hopeful Abbey will soon be able to stand upright, with supports, so she can be at eye level with her classmates.
Abbey attends a regular Grade 6 class, as well as an after-school program for children with developmental needs.
“The teachers work very hard to incorporate her into the classroom and activities with the other children.”
Abbey loves Emde’s twice-a-week, hour-long visits.
“All I have to do is tell her Robyn’s coming and she bounces up and down in her chair,” Vallance said. “It’s pure joy for my daughter.”