Practicing Reflexology with Special Needs Children – A Life Transformation

By Irene Mykoliw, OTR/L

If I am to summarize my experience in learning and practicing Reflexology in one expression it would be “wow and how amazing”, referring to the overall make up of the human body and of its own miraculous recovery process.

Background information:

I have a license to practice Occupational Therapy (also known as OT), an Allied Health Profession concerned with helping people of all ages to better perform those tasks that occupy their time. For children, this typically means playing and learning, as well as eating, dressing, grooming, relating and learning.

The OT objective is to assist in improving a child’s overall ability to attend, develop play, gross motor/visual/fine motor skills progressively, preparing them for academic challenges as they grow older…

When I ventured in working with the pediatric population, from 1993 ages 2 – 8 at a center based special education program until now, I noticed that children who had significant sensory processing interferences, due to a particular diagnosis, responded well to compression applied to their joints (one of the techniques OT use) and massage techniques to their feet and legs. They evidenced less agitation and increased calmness allowing some kind of therapeutic intervention to be done.

I attended a weekend reflexology workshop in 2002… finishing in March 2008 and what an enlightening and rewarding experience.

I began applying my learned reflexology techniques with my current young population (ages 2 to 3 ½ years) and thus experienced a profound inner change beyond my wildest dreams, especially with one little girl I will call Jay.

A Heart warming and moving Story:

From the time Jay arrived at the center all we heard were cries…

Jay has a compromised sensory processing ability. She had difficulty in transitioning from her parents, from one task to another, one place to another displaying crying and avoidance behavior, (either by closing her eyes, sliding down her chair, running to the door, or simply plopping her body to floor).

In the therapy room, Jay would cry and run from one area to another and to the door making displeased sounds.

I began trying basic [reflexology] relaxation techniques in November, which she seemed to tolerate for about 1 minute, when she allowed me to touch her feet with a playful approach of singing “tickle, tickle feet”, with a combination of other words.


Practicing Reflexology with Special Needs Children: A Life Transformation

I continued to work on Jay for about two minutes incorporating joint compression techniques at the hips and knees. It was in 3rd week of February of 2008 that a shift began to occur. One day I heard her cry for most of the classroom time (1 hour and 1/2), because of a different program trial application the teacher was enforcing. She was scheduled to see me before leaving for home, the remaining half hour.

I looked at her and she looked very tired from her ordeal. Jay was brought to the therapy room and I placed her on a large round pillow. The only recourse I had was applying reflexology relaxation and thumb/finger walking techniques.

She allowed me to work on her, beginning with relaxation techniques without fidgeting. I noticed a change in her facial expression with a curious gaze and progressed with thumb walking doing a general session, tolerating 3 minutes.

I sensed tenderness in adrenal glands on both feet and eased up the pressure. She stopped crying and presented to be less agitated, by standing and walking around as well as interacting with toy[s] I presented.

The next day, I made a point to ask the staff how did Jay perform with her trials and they replied more responsive than ever.

I began to incorporate at least 5 minutes to both feet each time I saw her, 2 x weekly for approximately 6 minutes depending on her tolerance) for another 3 months and for 7-10 minutes the remaining months until August 29th when she graduated from this program.

The outcomes were amazing.

For 7 months I would know when Jay came into the building, hearing her unique crying sounds. One afternoon I did not hear her and asked a teacher in passing whether Jay was in. She was. And so, the next remainder months no signs of her crying were heard when she arrived.

Jay’s initial behaviors:

Jay presented with minimum eye contact, difficulty in transitioning from one place to another, from one task to another, avoidance by closing her eyes, sliding down her chair and/or running to the door, crying and resisted to sit for table top fine motor tasks.

Behavioral changes noted:

Jay made great eye contact, smiled, initiated climbing on obstacle course, allowed to be directed to tasks at the table and fine-motor activities, grasping markers and briefly scribbling, stacking shapes, tolerating sensory overload in a crowded room.

One day, she walked toward divider doors adjacent to another therapy room, pushed the doors ajar, walked into that room and looked at 2 therapists present.That is an incredible feat for her. (I can describe it like a person who is afflicted with agoraphobia opening the door to take a walk around the block without fear).

The ultimate highlight was at her graduation day at the end of August (she aged out from the Early Intervention Program and onto the next level, Preschool). With the little ones presenting a rehearsed song to their parents, Jay sat and took in all with a smile at first and then a punched looked due to sensory overload from all the happenings in the room. When the ceremony was finished, it was time for her session with me.

I no longer needed to guide her to begin an activity. She immediately went to a suspended swing sat down and slowly moved herself with her feet. As a therapist, I interpret this as self-regulating skill, ability to calm herself. (Prior all the calming was adapted externally by the team with various strategies). I sat down and began to apply reflexology techniques, but she pulled away gently, as if to savior her quiet moment). I respected her cue. (The room was quiet. I experienced such gratitude for this added tool to use in my profession, which Jay clearly benefited from).

Both parents presented a Thank You card reading: “Your work with Jay has made such a difference for her. We love the way she is so much more aware and interactive with people and the environment and ready to explore and be adventurous. It’s Wonderful to see. Many thanks”….


This experience has impacted me deeply, witnessing improved behaviors and responses from other “little” clients. One child who had difficulty sitting still and attending, showed calmness for 2 minutes immediately and every session lifted his foot for me to work on his feet. He followed directions and sat for fine motor activities until it was time to leave.

The stories go on.

Although, sensory integration techniques serve the children therapeutically, I have observed that the effects of applying reflexology facilitated a quicker calming effect.

Without getting too technical, the children I work with evidence developmental delays due to a compromised nervous system for one unknown reason or another.They experience a high stress level, showing anxious behaviors and evidence being in a “fright or flight” mode, (the function of the sympathetic nervous system).

In applying reflexology techniques over a period of time, a change in their response to environmental and program demands are noticed by staff, eliciting a calming and attentive state (the function of the parasympathetic nervous system), which opens up for the learning process to occur.

My advanced studies in reflexology added another dimension in understanding the body mechanics, how the systems work, communicate with each other has sharpened my skills as a clinician. Reflexology is certainly complimenting my OT training contributing to a sense of being well rounded. The experience is priceless to observe the little relaxed expressions during their reflexology session and the growing changes that occur along the way.

I end this article with gratitude.