By Courtney Freitag
The light bulb moment for Mike Jones came at age 15 while laying in a Utah hospital bed recovering from surgery: he would dedicate his life to helping children. Fast-forward 47 years and the Portland inventor is gaining notoriety with the Pumper Car, including evidence-based research showing the benefits for those with autism.
The ride-on car, propelled by pumping motion like a rowing machine, began as a toy marketed to large retailers nationwide. What began to happen next went beyond Jones’ plans for the Pumper Car.
“It was my dream that it get recognition,” he says. “Helping those with special needs is not anything I planned when I started this, so I can’t take credit. But it’s very rewarding.”
Adaptive physical educators, therapists and clinicians began implementing the cars in treatment and saw measurable results. This peaked the interest of researchers who began studying the merits of the Pumper Car, deeming it effective in helping 29 different special needs, including Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Oregon therapists are discovering the amazing benefits,” says Dr. Brian Rogers, professor of pediatrics and director of the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center at Oregon Health and Science University, in a letter of support. He notes that “occupational and physical therapists nationwide are discovering the many benefits of adding a Pumper Car to their therapy sessions. They love it because it gets children excited about doing therapy and produces the results they need.”
In 2005, the Children’s Mobility Foundation donated 15 Pumper Cars to the Central District Autism Program at the University of Hawaii. Researchers there noted the need for methodical, rigorous research linking sensory and motor-oriented interventions to the effects in the areas of social, communication, cognitive, adaptive and behavior.
Preliminary data conducted in special needs classrooms within the public school setting indicated that the children who used the Pumper Car not only increased academic response, but also decreased challenging behaviors.
Dr. Janet L. Hauck, assistant professor of the Physical Activity in Youth with Disabilities Laboratory at University of Michigan’s Department of Kinesiology, connected with Jones in 2008. As a former adaptive physical education teacher, Hauck believed in the merits of the Pumper Car.
The lab is currently focused on investigating the relationship of infant and toddler physical activity on motor skill development and obesity in children with and without disabilities. The lab is also continuing the pursuit of physical activity and motor skill intervention development for infants and children with Down Syndrome and ASD.
“Children with autism are often more successful in individualized physical activity and sport,” Hauck says. “The Pumper Car, much like a bicycle or other riding device, is very individualized. The Pumper Car can also support a typical adult’s weight, meaning an adult can model riding alongside their student or patient. The ability to demonstrate and participate as a practitioner is ideal when working with children with disabilities.”
The University of Hawaii’s Oahu Central District also began preliminary research in 2008, collecting raw video footage of children with autism using the Pumper Car. The group monitored the effects of using a sensorimotor ride-on utility (SRU) and “stereotyped behaviors” often associated with children on the spectrum. These behaviors can interfere with academic responding, social interaction, communication and other appropriate behaviors.
A preliminary pilot study was conducted with 15 Pumper Cars used by special education students. The study’s results showed that the children using the SRU not only increased their academic responding, they also decreased certain challenging behaviors. They were also motivated to choose the SRU during their break times when given a choice of reinforcers, according to Dr. Aletha Gomez of the Central District Autism Program in Hawaii.
“When kids get on, they don’t feel like they’re different or have special needs,” Jones said. “Everyone wants to be them. It’s something they’ve never experienced before.”
For more information, visit the Pumper Car website.