Glenn Doman: Champion of Children with Special Needs


How a Physical Therapist Changed How the World Perceived Brain Injury and Developmental Delays

Sixty years ago, having a developmental delay or suffering brain damage was a life sentence. Children and adults were often written off, considered to be hopeless, and often sent to live in institutions where they were housed with the mentally ill. The brain was considered to be an organ that could not be repaired, and so damage to the brain was thought to be irreversible.

Glenn Doman was an innovator, and honestly a book could be (and should be) written about his amazing life work and discoveries. There were three discoveries and innovations that he brought to the world or treatment for children with special needs that were a complete paradigm shift. When it came to treating children with neurodevelopmental delays (developmental disabilities due to a neurological injury or condition), he popularized three essential components for success that no other person had discovered:

1) Neuroplasticity: Before Glenn Doman, the phenomena of neuroplasticity was only understood by handful of researchers who had discovered it with animals in the lab. Glenn Doman believed, and found, that the human brain had the capacity to recover from injury. He found that with the right kinds of stimulation at the right intensity, he could get neural connections to form that otherwise wouldn’t have. He discovered that if his patients were given abundant opportunity to move with the correct physical equipment and activity, that they could gain ability they never would otherwise have gained. He realized the brain MUST have the ability to develop and form more connections if his patients were regaining ability they had lost due to brain damage or more impressively, gain abilities they had never had before. Neuroplasticity is now a household term — everyone knows the brain can change and develop throughout our lifetimes. But when Glenn Doman made this claim in the 1950’s, he was called a quack by some and ignored by many. Perhaps his courage to stand by his discovery that the “brain grows by use” deserves as much recognition as the discovery itself.

2) Integrative treatment: Glenn Doman was a physical therapist. However, he realized that the best way to help children with developmental delays and patients with brain injury was by giving them a treatment plan that included a variety of different kinds of stimulation and activity. This integration of various forms of treatment was a new paradigm. Before, it was thought a physical therapist was needed to help physical function, a speech therapist of speech, an occupational therapist for manual functions, and so on. He created a treatment program that addressed the most important sensory and motor functions so that his patients could develop in the most comprehensive way possible. Now, integrative medicine is a respected and sought out area of study. He combined various new treatments like respiratory programs, nutritional plans, sensory stimulation, communication boards, etc. that were completely new at the time to help patients. He didn’t allow dogma to get in the way of aiding kids and adults who needed help.

3) Empowering families: Before Glenn, doctors and professionals regarded the family of patients as a hinderance and obstacle to getting their jobs done. Glenn Doman’s attitude was that the patient’s family was essential to helping the individual get better (and now most professionals would agree!). The family is present with the patient more than anyone else. The family is more dedicated to the person’s wellbeing than anyone else. Why not empower the most important people in the with the health and development of the patient in need? Glenn Doman found that when he taught the parents of children with special needs how to help their own kids at home, they got better results than he got in his rehabilitation center with his own team. Did he insist on them continuing to return to his center so he could earn as much money as possible? Did he close his discoveries off to the world in fear that they would be stolen and used by others? No, in fact he taught his knowledge directly to the families themselves, knowing that this was the best way to help children.

Glenn Doman changed how the world viewed, and treated, children and adults with neurodevelopmental conditions. His innovative mind and methods discovered that neuroplasticity could help children with special needs, and that empowering families with integrative treatments was the way to do it. While he made dozens of discoveries that changed the world and impacted the lives of thousands of people, it was these three elements that most set him apart from those that came before him. These elements remain an important part of the Doman Method for helping kids with special needs, as they are absolutely integral for maximum success and results. As the 100th anniversary of his birth approaches, we can marvel at his incredible achievements and be grateful that the world is a better place because of what he did.

Spencer Doman