Many of our FOCUS pediatric speech therapists were initially drawn to this field in part because we share a love of language. Sure, some of us are self-professed grammar nerds and logophiles, but in working with kids with special needs, we’ve seen that the real beauty of language is the way it facilitates communication and sparks connections. That’s a universal truth of language, but in helping children overcome speech delays, receptive language deficits or phonological disorders, we’ve come to appreciate language on a whole new level.
In stacking the developmental blocks for communication, social interaction and connection, one of the best (and easiest) things any parent can do: Read bedtime stories. This is especially true for kids with special needs, for whom language doesn’t come easily. Frequent storybook sessions help children learn new words, recognize the importance and subtle differences of tone, inflection and pitch, explore complex feelings and confusing interactions in a safe space and better grasp the intricacies of the world around them.
Most children – even if some have shorter attention spans – love bedtime stories. (Although story time can be anytime, bedtime is ideal – especially if you’re child is antsy – because you’re more likely to have a captive audience just before bed, as opposed to morning or mid-day, unless they still nap. Plus, many parents who work find it difficult to nail down a story time routine in the morning rush or simply can’t swing it on their lunch hour.) Making stories-and-snuggles part of the nightly groove works best for most, gives kids something to look forward to and a chance to wind down. And, as most parents of kids with special needs know, having a routine is a lifeline.
Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand the stories, follow along or pay much attention, research shows they still glean advantages from the one-on-one time, routine and mental exercise. Most speech, ABA and occupational therapists would argue children who struggle with expressive and receptive language skills may even need those bedtime stories more than most.
“Tummy time” is a cute little phrase referencing an essential infant exercise that our pediatric occupational therapists know so many parents come to dread. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, tummy time should start when your child is a newborn, placing your child (always supervised) on their tummies. This begins with short, 2-to-3-minute increments three times a day and eventually extending it for longer periods of 30-to-40-minutes as they get older.
The whole concept of “tummy time” started back in the early 1990s, when the AAP first began recommending that babies be put “back to sleep,” placed on their backs during naps and at night to reduce the incidence rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – which has really worked! Researchers around the globe report SIDS deaths have decreased 40 to 50 percent since the Back to Sleep campaign began.
The problem is this has been accompanied by a rise in other problems physicians and pediatric occupational therapists believe is related, most commonly plagiocephaly. In layman’s terms, this refers to when infants develop a flat spot on the back of their skull. The American Academy of Physical Therapists reports an “alarming rise” of skull deformation, with one analysis published in the Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal finding it rose approximately 600 percent from an incidence rate of 5 percent prior to 1992 (when the “Back to Sleep” campaign began) until now. “Back to Sleep” is almost certainly a driving factor, but also the increasingly inordinate amount of time infants spend in car seats, strollers, etc.
Most any Fort Myers speech-language pathologist will tell you one of the first questions families of young children ask when inquiring whether certain missed milestones are cause for concern: “What if my child doesn’t respond to his name?”
It’s impossible to give a blanket answer because every child develops at a uniquely individual pace. (It’s also physicians – usually specialists – responsible for the actual diagnosis.) That said, a long-time speech-language pathologist will likely agree: If your child doesn’t respond to his name by the time they turn 1-year-old, it could indicate a developmental delay that requires action. You’ll want to alert your child’s primary care physician and discuss whether the concern warrants referrals for closer evaluation by specialists.
Responding to one’s name is a critical building block of functional communication. This wouldn’t be just a single instance when he couldn’t tear his attention from a riveting show or “selective hearing” in a moment of intense fun. This would be an issue that is consistent and noticeable (at least by you).
What Child’s Failure to Respond to Name Could Mean
Almost all our FOCUS families are looking forward to a little down time spent with loved ones over the winter holidays. But – You Better Watch Out! As our occupational therapists can explain, a break from the routine of regular school, sports, occupational therapy and other activities for three full weeks can be enough to throw any child off-balance. It’s especially true for children with sensory processing disorder, exacerbated when in lieu of those routines, they’re feeling the sensory overload of parties, people, music, lights, recitals/ plays/ shows, decorations and different foods.
Reducing the risk of over-stimulation and the kind of routine disruption that leads to major meltdowns, our Fort Myers pediatric occupational therapists urge parents to “ease through the season.” That doesn’t mean your child can’t participate in or won’t enjoy your family’s much-cherished traditions. In fact, this time of year can be an excellent learning opportunity for those with sensory challenges or social anxiety. It just means that to maximize the time you have, plan ahead when possible and be mindful of the ways in which your child is experiencing these same events.
Occupational Therapists Want to See a Merrier Season for All
Although it’s been said many times, many ways: Prepare, prepare, prepare. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge ordeal, but just take a few minutes to consider where you’re going, whether you’re traveling, how many are likely to be there and what sensory obstacles can you reasonably foresee. For example, if you’re planning a busy day with lots of activities or an extended trip, a weighted or compression vest might go a long way. Keep sensory tools handy. And even if you think your child may not fully understand, take a little time to explain the plan – the night before, the morning of, on the way there and just before you get there. That way they aren’t completely caught off guard.
“Alexa, where can I find the best speech therapy for child stuttering in Fort Myers?”
In this increasingly digital age, we’re engaging with artificial intelligence more than ever. It’s a trend unlikely to slow, and chief among these new communication advances are voice assistants. Apple’s Siri, unveiled in 2011, is a great example. Amazon’s Alexa is another. However, for as “intelligent” as these devices are, they have by-and-large failed to account for user difficulty by those with speech and language disorders, like stuttering, childhood apraxia of speech and more. In an era when these kinds of technologies are becoming more pervasive than ever, early intervention speech therapy for child stuttering and other speech impairments becomes even more critical.
Speech Impairments and Artificial Intelligence
Part of the problem with voice assistant technology is that it wholly fails to account for those with speech delays or difficulties. Let’s take Siri, for instance. It’s supposed to be a time-saving device that allows us to cull information hands-free (making it ideal for multi-tasking or safer for activities like driving). But in giving speech therapy for child stuttering, we’ve noticed Siri doesn’t account for the stutter. Once a person pauses or stops over a word – the voice assistant stops listening. In other words, something that was created to help save time ends up creating more stress.
Speech recognition software systems used in technology like Alexa and Siri fail are undoubtedly impressive. However, it has not been programmed to account for the extra pause or sounds that can be created when a person stutters or has some other speech impairment.
It’s been well established over decades of rising autism rates that two things are proven most effective to ensure the best outcomes: Early diagnosis and early intervention, the latter incorporating an initially intense schedule of Fort Myers ABA therapy (applied behavioral analysis), usually in combination with speech therapy, occupational therapy and sometimes physical therapy. (Most children with autism have co-occurring conditions.)
Now, a very interesting new study published in the journal Cell Reports indicates it may be possible to address some of the social behavior deficits characteristic of autism even well into adulthood with a novel approach: Electric currents. While the sensitive time period for treating social behaviors is longer than for repetitive behaviors, it’s still a pretty small window of early childhood. Citing a growing body of evidence that there is a genetic component to autism impacting certain neural pathways, the new study concludes we *might* be able to successfully tackle social behavioral inflexibility in much older children with autism or even adults with magnetic stimulation or low-dose electrical currents.
Now, we need to pause a moment and point out this isn’t a mad scientist / “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” kind-of-deal. So-called “electric shock therapies” got a terrible rap in the 19th and 20th centuries – and for good reason due to some wildly unethical tactics with tragic results. Today though, electroconvulsive therapy has proven both safe and very effective for conditions like severe depression and bipolar disorder, while neuromodular therapy (similar) has been effective in treating Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
Critical School Shortage of Florida Pediatric Speech-Language Therapists Makes Private Therapy More Pivotal
A critical shortage of Florida pediatric speech-language therapists in public schools is making private speech therapy for kids with special needs in Fort Myers all the more crucial. It’s important to note off-the-bat that the Lee County School District does hire some phenomenal speech-language therapists. (Some of our own, including founder Jennifer Voltz, MS/CCC-SLP, are proud to have launched or furthered careers there). The problem is the Florida pediatric speech-language therapists hired by the district are very limited in allotted time for each school and every child with an individualized education plan (IEP). For many of these kids, consistency is key to generalization of communication skills in everyday life.
Parents whose children aren’t getting adequate time investment from the district’s speech therapy (which honestly is probably most) can make sure their kids don’t fall further behind by researching and arranging speech therapy at FOCUS Fort Myers. Our self-pay rates are competitive, but many health insurers will cover Florida pediatric speech-language therapists’ services with certain diagnoses and/ or documented supporting evidence of medical necessity.
Shortages of speech therapy professionals isn’t an especially new problem, nor is it unique to Florida. In 2007, University of Central Florida researchers concluded the lack of Florida speech-language therapists in public schools was “critical.” The National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services, an advocacy group of about 30 participating member organization, reported 47 percent of schools in 2014 didn’t have enough speech therapists for their students.
Fort Myers ABA therapists at FOCUS know that in terms of specialties in medical study, autism is relatively new. The condition wasn’t even named in medical literature until the 1930s. The child psychiatrist credited with discovering it would later say, “I didn’t discover autism. It was there before.” But because this overall lack of awareness of the condition – even in the medical community – means still today that for as many strides as we’ve made, there is still so much we don’t know – namely, its causes or why autism rates have risen so sharply since the 1960s (now at 1 in every 59 children and 1 in 38 for boys).
What our ABA therapists can say with confidence is that early intervention with a combination of pediatric therapies – specifically ABA (applied behavioral analysis), occupational therapy, speech therapy and sometimes physical therapy – has thusfar proven the most effective in helping children diagnosed with autism catch up to their peers to the greatest extent possible.
ABA Therapists: FOCUS’ Collaborative Approach has Proven Most Effective
ABA, and the methods studied and practiced by our Fort Myers ABA therapists, specialists and RBTs (registered behavior technicians), are considered the”gold standard” when it comes to autism therapy. In the simplest terms, ABA is a rewards-based system for the goal of behavior modification. Parents use it all the time without even realizing (example: You’ll get dessert if you finish your broccoli). Our Fort Myers ABA therapists can explain we use the same basic principle, but uniquely tailored to each child, meeting them at their skill level to teach appropriate behaviors and minimize inappropriate or unhealthy behaviors. (This individualized plan approach is critical because as the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism… You’ve met one person with autism.” What is motivating or consequential for one child may be totally irrelevant and ineffective for another. That’s why it’s so important to have ABA therapists who aren’t just trained, but passionate about what they do, committed to never giving up in identifying those missing puzzle pieces that are going to make it “click” for each child.
The FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists have years of education and experience in developing goals and a plan-of-care for our pediatric patients, with the goal of promoting the highest level of functioning in everyday life. But as parents, you don’t need a degree to carry these lessons over with at-home occupational therapy exercises. There are many ways you can help strengthen your child’s skills and development with occupational therapy exercises – most with items you probably have around the house, if you need anything at all. The idea is not just to improve your child’s development of independence and life skills, but to have fun and spend quality time doing it.
Some of the strengths and skills you can target with occupational therapy exercises at home include:
- Body awareness
- Visual perception skills
- Language skills
- Muscle strength
- Direction following
- Texture exploration
- Emotional regulation
Because every child is different, it’s important to discuss your plan for at-home occupational therapy exercises with your child’s FOCUS occupational therapist, to ensure safety and the best results.
If there was ever such a thing as a real-life Santa’s workshop for children with disabilities, it’s probably a bit closer to the equator than the North Pole. At the University of North Florida, pediatric physical therapy students have been partnering with those in the school’s engineering program, pooling their talent to create specialized toys for children with special needs.
The Florida Times-Union reports the pediatric physical therapy students have been working to help develop solutions from battery-powered ride-on cars for children with mobility issues to voice-activated toys for children who need speech therapy to electronic fidget cubes for high school students with autism.
Our FOCUS Fort Myers pediatric physical therapy professionals applaud the UNF Adaptive Toy project, first started in 2014 to help meet the needs for toys for local children with disabilities. The program has already become a model for nearly a half-dozen higher education programs across the country, with professors of electrical engineering and physical therapy at the college leading the way. Since the program was first launched, it has produced 31 cars for children with special needs, and two new toys were added just this year.
The pediatric physical therapy and electrical engineering students are continually working to resolve glitches and dream up ideas for new toys, specifically for children who suffer from disabilities such as cerebral palsy, genetic disorders and spinal muscular atrophy.