PIEDMONT -- Mia Thomas, clinical health studies major at Ithaca College, is developing a product that could go a long way toward improving the gait of toe walkers, a common problem for those with autism.
The product, called InsertHeels, is off to a promising start, having been selected as one of four winners in the college's Business Idea Competition. As a result, Thomas, a former Piedmont resident and Piedmont High School alumna, won $5,000.
While it's common to see toddlers toe walking or balancing on the balls of their feet past the age of 5 or 6, this can be an indication of underlying neurological conditions, including autism.
"Autistic children will do a lot of things that give them instant stimulation, like walking on the ball of their foot," Thomas said. "This can cause early arthritis in the foot, knee and hip, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendon tendonitis."
Thomas' product is a simple solution compared to the normal painful treatment of ankle braces, surgery and repeated castings, which are not always effective and can be invasive and painful. It uses shoe inserts with nodules placed strategically on the area that contacts the heel. Rather than preventing toe-walking by restricting the foot, it provides heel stimulation.
The idea came to the 21-year-old senior in part from her sister-in-law, a behavioral therapist who works with autistic patients, and from an innovation project she was doing her junior year for a neuromuscular control course taught by professor Jeff Ives. With their encouragement, Thomas read research studies, spoke with physical therapists working with autistic patients and, with Ives, looked at different ways to create heel stimulation.
"My first prototype was a Dr. Scholl's insert I cut down to a child's size 13 and put a few rubber protective bumpers normally used for furniture and countertops on the heel in various patterns that receive the most stimulation," Thomas said. "My next prototype was made out of aquaplast used to make quick orthotics for patients."
The next step is to see if the product works and to this end both Thomas and her sister-in-law are applying to the Human Subject Review Board to conduct trial studies next fall. Thomas has also contacted a manufacturer in Nashville, Tenn., who wants to make all the orthotics for the study.
Thomas credited Ives with encouraging her to enter the competition as a way to keep her motivated on the product idea and attributes her success, in part, to weekly sessions that taught her how to pitch a business idea.
"I think the judges liked the numbers I gave and the business side of my idea, as well as that it could help prevent pain and treat patients with autism," Thomas said.
If the field study proves successful, the product could be available to health care professionals who treat autistic patients within a couple of years. InsertHeels would cost patients $90 to $130 and would need to be replaced about once a year. Offering multiple heel patterns would take into account patient accommodation, providing new areas of heel stimulation.
Thomas has learned much from her experience, about autism itself and about how medical professionals work with these patients. Running a study next year means she will have an opportunity to study at the National Institute for Autism in Massachusetts.
"I'll have to shadow their behavioral and occupational therapists and take a training course to learn how to work with patients," she said.
With two years left at Ithaca College for her doctorate in physical therapy, Thomas' future direction may have veered from her original intent, in large part because of what's she learned from developing InsertHeels.
"I took a class at Piedmont High that sparked my whole interest in working as a physical therapist and athletic trainer and caused me to go to Ithaca College," she said. "I came here looking into sports medicine and working with an athletic population. But this has definitely opened my eyes to what other populations I could be working with and how it's very different working with such populations."