Adventure therapy is changing lives

As a kid Chris Higgins loved being outdoors, spending time on his family’s hobby farm, always trying something different and even jacarooing during his uni holidays, but little did he know then what therapeutic benefits his energetic lifestyle could have.

Today Higgins is in demand as the director of OpentraX which provides individually tailored programs that combine traditional allied healthcare with a range of outdoor adventure activities in a type of therapy that is far removed from the doctor’s office. Instead of sitting on a therapist’s couch Higgins’ clients are more likely to find themselves on a Pokemon Go challenge, mountain bike jousting, abseiling, hiking and, later this year, probably rock climbing and kayaking too, to help manage their own challenges that cover a range of physical and intellectual disabilities as well as mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Higgins credits his own experience of getting out in his local forest park as influencing his business model. “After exploring the local bush tracks I saw what that could do for others instead of being in a clinic,” he said. Brisbane Rail Trail, White Rock and Spring Mountain are just some of the locations where they lead their adventures.

OpentraX clients range in age from 5 to 70 and, since starting in 2021, demand has been steadily increasing and they are being called farther and farther afield to meet clients in Caboolture or Toowoomba as well as local districts as word spreads about what they are doing. Higgins and his team will meet clients initially for an assessment and then tailor a program to suit their interests and needs. Many have already tried traditional methods of therapy but Higgins says their success is simple to explain. “If they enjoy what they are doing then they really want to engage and we’ve found that many want to keep doing it,” he said.

While most clients are initially scheduled three to four sessions of supervised activities to gauge results, most are keen to continue. Higgins said the goal is to gradually transition clients from their one-on-one sessions to group activities where they can meet up with others who share the same interest and experiences as them and gradually they can make their own social connections.

Ash is one happy parent whose 12-year-old son son Riley has been on the program for almost four months. The Redbank mum was referred to OpentraX by a physiotherapist at Brisbane Children’s Hospital where Riley has been having regular treatment following surgery for a brain tumour which has affected his balance and movement on his left side. According to Ash the program has been great for Riley’s self-esteem and confidence and he looks forward to each adventure. “He’s gained strength and now has the confidence to go bike riding with his brothers,” she said.

Higgins too is adamant their programs are about more than just riding around on bikes. They work with psychologists, occupational therapists and a team of specialist physiologists to tailor sessions to address each individual’s personal challenges which may include ADHD, ASD, OCD and autism, behavioural problems or learning difficulties, as well as physical disabilities.

“We find out about each individual as much as we can, what their interests as well as the things they don’t like and what stresses them out or causes their anxiety or what their challenges are then build a program around that,” he said.

As they go through the programs Higgins says they see the changes. “Beside the physical fitness and strength they get from the exercise they become more functional and some will go on to get jobs and some will get involved in clubs where they meet others and form their own social connections,” he said. “When you see the smiles on their faces you see that it’s not just helping the child or the adult in the program, it is more far-reaching and impacts the whole family.”

The results are not only spreading by word of mouth direct from the people participating in the program. OpentraX has already attracted attention from sports science authorities, universities and local councils who have all shown interest and support for their programs. A local mountain biking club also donated some mountain bikes when they heard about what OpentraX was doing.

“It hasn’t been easy and we put every bit of money we make back into buying equipment so we can get more practitioners to get out there and do more sessions because of the need for it,” Higgins said.

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