‘I promise never, ever, ever, ever to tell anyone else the secrets of our magic.’
Ten-year-old Richard Moir and a group of other children are making the magician’s pledge during an intensive therapy program called the Amazing Magic Club, run by the Arts Health Institute of NSW.
These children have in common a physical disability that is the result of a brain disorder called hemiplegia. About one in 1300 children will be born with it, and a number more will acquire it during their development. It’s usually caused by cerebral palsy or a stroke early in the children's lives and affects the brain on one side more than the other.
This is probably one of the most rewarding magic gigs that I've had in my career.SAM ANGELICO, MAGICIAN
'It can affect the children very differently, with some children having severe weakness, an inability to use one of their hands and an imbalance in their legs and their walking,’ says Dr Dido Green from the UK’s Oxford Brookes University. ‘Other children may have a less pronounced physical difficulty but can equally experience frustration, particularly as these children are often in mainstream schools or in state schools and trying to keep up with their peers who don't have any weakness.’
While the disability caused by hemiplegia often doesn’t appear extreme, it can mean that children are not able to perform simple tasks that require the coordination of both hands, like tying their shoelaces or using a knife and fork, which can be frustrating and socially isolating.
Richard Moir’s mother Alison says that hemiplegia has affected her son’s social life.
‘Getting along with other kids has sometimes proved to be a bit of an issue, firstly because he is a bit different to them,’ she says. ‘The other boys his age, they are strong and rough-and-tumble ... so he tends to steer away from those kinds of things.'
‘Academically he is bright, so that's not a problem, it doesn't slow him down there, except that as school progresses and more is expected of him he fatigues much more easily.’
Six-year-old Riley Blumen also has hemiplegia. His parents first noticed a problem when he was about three months old. They now know that he had a stroke very early on. His left hand is limp and it often tightens up into a ball, so he feels he can't use both his hands. He now wears a splint on his arm to help keep his hand open.
The conventional treatment for hemiplegia involves intense therapy, repeating exercises over and over again to encourage use of the affected arm or leg. It becomes very tedious and frustrating for both children and their parents.
The NSW Arts Health Unit is running the pilot magic skills course after seeing positive results from similar programs conducted by Dr Green and Breathe Arts Health Research in the UK.
So how did Dr Green and the UK team come up with the idea of teaching magic tricks as therapy?
First they realised that they needed to add some fun to inspire and motivate the children to use their weaker limbs, and after noticing how well kids responded to being entertained by magicians, they decided to teach a group of kids with hemiplegia to be magicians themselves .
‘The results of that were really fantastic,’ says Dr Green. ‘Nine of those 10 children really engaged with it and in fact would lock themselves in their rooms or practice their magic tricks until they could trick their parents. The parents would come to us and say they really, really wanted to know how to do the magic tricks themselves.’
Dr Green and her colleagues taught the children magic tricks that involved motor skills that were challenging without being impossible. Because the children were so excited by the mystery of the magic, they were motivated to practice the movements over and over again. Dr Green is proud of the results they’ve seen.
‘We know that if we provide intensive bimanual intervention for a minimum of 60 hours over three weeks or 120 hours over two months, we know that children can make good progress in using both hands to achieve better independence in all those tasks we do on a daily basis that require two hands,’ she says.
‘The difference with the magic program, and our results are beginning to show, is that we are also getting an enhanced benefit on the confidence and self-esteem. So children are feeling empowered by their new skills and the results are generalising to other areas of their development.’
IMAGE: RICHARD MOIR EXAMINES THE CARDS IN DEEP CONCENTRATION (NICOLA WARD FOR ARTS HEALTH INSTITUTE)
Dr Green wants to find out what mechanism in the brain is being engaged by the magic exercises.
‘This is the focus of our ongoing research, trying to understand the relationship between what we call the neuroplasticity of the brain; the capacity of the brain to change as a consequence of the activities and experiences that the child is exposed to and how that then affects the capacity of the child to perform bimanual skills.’
‘At the moment much of that remains a mystery to us, and there are a number of research groups trying to unpick how different areas of the brain communicate within a task performance, and then how that links to the connections of the muscles in not just the hemiplegic hand, but how both hands start to what I call speak to each other, to be productive and functional.’
Following the lead of the UK research, the NSW Arts Health Unit employed two highly experienced magicians, Bruce Glen and Sam Angelico, as teachers for their program.
Angelico has been a magician all his life and his theatrical and enthusiastic manner quickly excites and engages the children.
‘This is probably one of the most rewarding magic gigs that I've had in my career,’ he says. ‘The beauty of this project is that it's a bit like an illusion in itself, the whole thing, because we mask and camouflage the therapy with fun, and they grab it with both hands and a big smile on their face because at the very beginning of the camp the magicians involved actually perform some of their favourite magic for the children, specifically for the children to feel a sense of wonder. It's an insatiable feeling ... so it's about sharing wonder.’
Richard Moir really feels he benefited from the course and is excited by his new magic skills.
‘At first it is hard, but then as I practice, practice, practice ... as you know the saying goes, "practice makes perfect"; I get better at it.’
He says it’s made a real difference to what he can do. As a result of his magic practice, he’s proud that he can now tie his shoelaces, tie the rubbish bags to take them out to the bin and cut food with a knife and fork. But the best thing, he says, is that he can really impress his sister with his tricks. And there’s no way he’s going to share his secrets with her, because of the magician’s pledge he took at the beginning of the program.