The Wilbarger Protocol has been a staple of therapeutic treatment of sensory processing disorder for decades. I will reveal my age, and admit that I learned directly from Pat Wilbarger. She was an amazing teacher and a highly skilled clinician to see in action. But I have lost count of the number of times parents have shown me how they have been instructed to administer deep pressure brushing and joint compression, and I had to decide exactly how to respond in a professional manner. My initial internal reaction is often something akin to “STOP!”
So many parents have been incorrectly taught. They are wondering why this technique hasn’t worked very well for their child. Internet-savvy parents have consulted “Dr. Google” and heard both positive and critical remarks about the Wilbarger Protocol from other parents. They are discouraged; concerned that their child is too impaired for it to work, or they are just not coordinated enough to be successful.
Well, I can tell them that the Wilbarger Protocol won’t work well if you don’t do it right. And you won’t do it right if you weren’t shown correctly. I suspect that, like a child’s game of “telephone”, their former therapist learned the method from her supervisor, and her supervisor learned the technique from HER boss or teacher. And THAT therapist learned from her clinical director. On and on, until there is no understanding of the concepts that form the basis for the technique, such as Gate Theory, or that Pat left the cranial compressions behind in the early to mid-90’s due to the risk of cervical injury.
This technique isn’t easy to do on toddlers or children with ASD. Being comfortable with manual treatment helps. Understanding what not to do helps. Knowing how to create a receptive state in a special needs child helps. It takes a level of confidence, experience, and the ability to understand how to adapt it to the specific client without losing the benefit we are seeking: neuromodulation. It is possible to do it wrong and unfortunately increase sensory sensitivity or put a child into overarousal. It is also possible to create joint or tissue damage (likely small, but still possible) with too-vigorous force.
Pat used to have her teaching assistants assess every participant in her training courses to ensure that therapists left knowing what to do and what not to do. She couldn’t control what happened in anyone’s clinic or school. If therapists or parents find that they aren’t getting the desired results from this treatment technique, I would encourage them to do some research and find older therapists that may have had direct contact with the inventor of this protocol, or at least a therapist that learned from someone that had the good fortune to learn directly from Pat Wilbarger.
Looking for more information about the Wilbarger Protocol? Read Can You Use The Wilbarger Protocol With Kids That Have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome? for some methods to adapt this brilliant technique for children with connective tissue disorders.