Medical providers are increasingly relying on telehealth services to ensure patients' needs are met - by meeting patients where they are. It's been used by nurses, psychologists and therapists too. FOCUS Fort Myers is now among the first providers in Southwest Florida to offer online speech therapy for kids.
Sometimes called virtual therapy or teletherapy, it's any therapy that can be conducted via technological device (iPad, phone, computer, laptop, etc.). FOCUS began offering online speech therapy services sporadically about 18 months ago. Recently, we established our Teletherapy Department, consisting of two pediatric speech therapists who exclusively operate remotely.
"The same diagnoses and conditions that can be treated in our clinic can be treated effectively via teletherapy," said Haley Ott, FOCUS speech-language pathology assistant and director of the Teletherapy Department.
The process is similar to a Face Time call, except it's through a secure, HIPPA-compliant app.
"It's fairly simple from there," FOCUS SLP and TD department founder and executive director Emmi MacIntyre Ring explained. "We provide our clients with a meeting code, the client enters it into their device, and we pop up on their screen and utilize a variety of online platforms to target their therapy goals. It's an evidence-based and supported administration of therapy services that we've found to be extremely convenient and effective for our clients at FOCUS."
Some local schools contract with companies that strictly offer teletherapy services. However, only a small number of private therapy clinics offer it - for now.
In many regions - including Southwest Florida - the need for speech therapists is greater than the supply. The new Advanced Report on Telehealth and Telemedicine Market Analysis Forecast indicates that by 2026, the global market for all telemedicine is expected to exceed $185 million.
The cost for speech teletherapy is the same as an in-clinic visit, and it's covered in FOCUS' contract with Medicaid. We also extend this service to private pay clients, and are working to expand availability for patients in other insurance networks.
Therapists don't need any special training for telehealth services except for use of the app. If there are parent concerns about how attentive a child will be in online speech therapy, we encourage quiet observation of a session or two in the background. After the first few, though, kids usually make more progress when given space to connect one-on-one with their therapist - even from a distance.
Effectiveness of Teletherapy for Speech
Because telehealth is relatively new in the medical field, researchers are still gathering data and anecdotal evidence that will provide definitive proof of its effectiveness. Still, early impressions are that online speech therapy could be a game-changer for many kids who might otherwise be limited in the early intervention services they could receive.
One study found that kids receiving speech teletherapy outperformed control groups and national benchmarks in expressive and receptive language, social pragmatics and articulation skills.
Research published in the spring 2017 edition of the International Journal of Telerehabilitation concluded: "The evidence presented showed that telehealth is a promising service delivery method for delivering speech and language intervention services to school-age children. This alternative service delivery model has the potential to improve access to SLP services for children living in geographically remote areas, reducing travel time and alleviating the detrimental effects of communication difficulties on education, social participation and employment."
In other words: We KNOW that early speech and language communication skills are a strong indicator of a child's future success. The sooner we can treat speech and language deficits, the better off that child will be long-term. Online speech therapy is a way to extend the same services to kids who might have a difficult time to make it to the office everyday.
"The therapy we're offering isn't different - the mode of delivery is," explained Ott. "Many therapists believe that teletherapy is especially beneficial and a superior method for children in schools because it allows for a FULL session, without having to take time out of a session to transport students. More minutes means more progress."
It's also important to note that while screen time for young kids is generally frowned upon, teletherapy is different. While most television and online games deprive kids of key social interaction, the whole point of speech teletherapy is engaging them.
"Teletherapy is led and directed by a licensed, certified clinician, working specifically on therapy goals in a way that is tactical and motivating for each child and their needs," MacIntyre said.
Parent Feedback on FOCUS Online Speech Therapy Program
Parents come to FOCUS Fort Myers from all over Southwest Florida because we are one of the most trusted providers of speech, occupational, physical and ABA therapy in the region. But teletherapy is still fairly new, so it's understandable parents and even some providers would approach it with healthy skepticism. Ott said the primary concern initially is, "What if my child doesn't pay attention?"
"This is 100 percent understandable, and is a concern of ours as well," Ott said. "However, you can apply this question to your child in most situations - including at school and during in-clinic therapy sessions. In school, your child isn't paying attention ALL the time, and in-person therapy at FOCUS isn't always smooth-sailing either. Most children need frequent breaks in order to attend, and online speech therapy is no different."
Elliot Warford, 8, of Fort Myers, has been a speech teletherapy patient for several months now.
"We love teletherapy so much," his mother Crystal Warford said. "It's a more controlled, one-to-one session, as opposed to in the clinic, where there are sometimes distractions. He loves that Haley incorporates games, and he feels more in control when he gets to choose which games to play. And of course for us, it's convenient to be able to cook dinner while he's in therapy."
Teletherapy may not be an option for every child, but we also know for some kids, it can be every bit as effective as in-person sessions. Sometimes children are more engaged in teletherapy sessions than in-person sessions because they get access to functional screen time.
This service makes a big difference for working parents and families constantly ferrying back-and-forth to other appointments and commitments. It increases access to providers, allows for greater transparency (every session can be recorded) and children enjoy it.
"It's a great way to incorporate education with something they like and aid in increasing their development," Ott said.
Andrea Cappuccilli's daughter has been attending speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy at FOCUS for the past several years. Recently, the 7-year-old started doing some of her FOCUS speech therapy sessions online from home.
"Our primary purpose for speech therapy is to work on voice and breathing exercises so that her respiratory system can get stronger," Cappuccilli explained. "Teletherapy at home gives her a solid chance of improving these skills, while allowing her to avoid exposure to illnesses like the flu or RSV that can easily put her in the hospital for weeks."
And her daughter loves it.
"She knows she's doing therapy, but being on a screen - which kids are already all about - makes it seem cool, and like it's on HER terms."
FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy and online speech therapy for kids in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
A Pilot Telerehabilitation Program: Delivering Early Intervention Services to Rural Families, Fall 2009, Jana Cason, International Journal of Telerehabilitation
While slime itself – slippery, gooey, smooshy, somewhere between liquid and solid – has a lot to offer in terms of sensory integration, the simple process of making it in a therapy session can give children a lot of practice in key skills we’re working to develop.
(And the lessons “stick” because, well – slime is cool!)
We encourage parents to try this – and other simple experiments – at home to get their kids talking!
You my notice in the FOCUS waiting room that our Fort Myers speech therapists sometimes form some basic signs with our hands while we’re speaking to some of our patients. But it’s not exactly sign language. What we’re doing in those instances is using a speech-language therapy technique known as “sign-supported speech,” sometimes referred to as SSS.
Sign-supported speech is a form of simultaneous communication (SimCom), which was originally formed for the benefit of those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. However, the method has also proven an effective way for our Fort Myers speech therapists to teach speech and language to children with language delays and disorders.
Recent research published in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research found that when speech therapists used sign-supported speech for word learning when working with children who have a developmental language disorder, it had a positive impact on the child’s linguistic and cognitive development.
There are lullabies that promise pretty horses and twinkling stars and some over-the-rainbow places where dreams-come-true. But pediatric music and speech therapy researchers have learned that lullabies may hold another promise: Better health for premature babies.
Recent analysis shows a parent who sing to preemies still receiving treatment in neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can:
- Soothe a child amid scary new sensations and hospital noises, bonding parent-to-child.
- Regulate breathing and improve oxygen absorption for those who haven’t yet developed reflexive breathing.
- Boost a baby’s nutritional intake, imperative for those with immature oral-facial muscles struggling to suck and swallow
Speech Therapy Pros: Preemies – All Babies – Need Your Voice
At our FOCUS Fort Myers speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy clinic, we treat many children born prematurely, as they are at much higher risk of neurodevelopmental difficulties. The earlier we intervene the better, but encourage parents to start first. Even the simple act of talking regularly to your child from a young age can do wonders.
For a premature baby, lullabies serve much the same purpose – but with power that extends beyond just speech and language development extending to objectively improved odds at survival for babies born at 37 weeks or earlier.
A 2013 study published in Pediatrics found that a parent’s lullabies or even just humming – gentle and rhythmic – played to the backdrop of low guitar strings reduced stress levels and promoted bonding, as evidenced by:
- Regulated babies’ heartbeats;
- Promoted longer, deeper periods of sleep;
- Improved weight gain;
- Shorter hospital stays;
- Better long-term cognitive development and function.
Social media newsfeeds everywhere will be suddenly awash today with blue light bulbs and puzzle piece art, marking World Autism Awareness Day (every April 2nd) and the beginning of National Autism Awareness Month. At FOCUS, members of our team have been providing Fort Myers therapy for children with autism (and many other conditions) for more than a decade now.
Occasionally during Autism Awareness Month, we come across questions/hear sentiments like:
- What difference do blue porch lights and profile pic frames make?
- Doesn’t everyone already know about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at this point? After all, the CDC’s newest estimate that 1 in 59 children/1 in 37 boys are diagnosed in the U.S. now annually.
- Do we really even NEED an Autism Awareness Month anymore?
Early Intervention Speech, Occupational, ABA Therapy Preparing Wave of People With Autism for Workforce
As rates of autism diagnoses climb steadily, roughly 500,000 teens with autism are poised to enter the workforce over the next decade, according to advocates at Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism. Yet the majority of those people with autism struggle to land their first job, and 4 in 10 won’t work at all in their 20s. The spectrum is incredibly broad, so each comes to the table with their own strengths and challenges, but there is no question those who receive early intervention ABA therapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy fare much better long-term.
Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated autism prevalence rates by 15 percent to 1 in 59 children. That’s more than double what the rate was in 2000. Part of this has to do with improved awareness, earlier diagnoses and improved treatment models. Research published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health indicated early diagnosis (before 24 months, as early as 12 months) leads to earlier eligibility for intervention services (like ABA therapy), and other evidence-based research has indicated clear indication early intervention is causally related to better prognoses – including success in education and employment.
The AFFA reports that while most adults with autism want to work, fewer than 60 percent can land a job. The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet an adult deprived of early intervention therapies as a child has missed out on a critical development window to address significant challenges associated with everyday function and independence. This isn’t to say it’s ever entirely “too late” to initiate intervention strategies, but our ABA therapy team members know it’s most effective when it starts before age 5 (and the earlier the better).
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
Pediatric speech and language therapy is hard work – best achieved through fun-and-games.
Adults tend to disregard play as a silly childhood indulgence. However, consensus among speech therapists AND child development researchers is playtime is pivotal in speech-language progress – and overall development. In fact, almost all learning in those first five years occurs in play-based exploration. Further, these skills take root much faster when adults actively participate in child-led play.
FOCUS Fort Myers speech therapists have a treasure trove of toys, games, crafts and other fun things to encourage play, which directly spurs expressive and receptive language development. We’re also constantly on the lookout for new ideas. Sometimes we even make our own! Sometimes playful interest is captured in the simplest forms, like mushing food, making a paper bag rattle or blowing bubbles.
When it comes to speech therapy, there are two general schools of thought: Early Intervention and Watch and Wait. Increasingly, doctors, specialists and teachers are on board with what our FOCUS Fort Myers speech therapists have been saying for years: Early intervention is key!
You may be familiar with the legend of Albert Einstein’s childhood speech delay leading to his parents’ concern he might not be bright. This purported speech delay of an unequivocal genius lends inspiration to many who struggle with similar issues. Unfortunately, it’s also given families of “late talkers” validation for the “Watch and Wait Approach” – which is typically not what we advise.
Until fairly recently, most pediatricians were content to let parents wait before seeking assistance with their children’s speech concerns, often not pressing for speech therapy until the child was school-age. That is changing – much to our enthusiasm! Clinicians are increasingly aware that speech impairments in children can lead to a greater likelihood of social struggles and reading problems. The younger the child, the more malleable their brains, and the better outcomes we have.
Sippy cups are small, portable and help keep messes to a minimum – BUT, there’s a catch. They can wreak havoc on your child’s teeth and lead to oral motor delays that can snowball into speech and language impairments.
As parents and caregivers, our FOCUS therapists totally get the convenience factor of sippy cups. And it is, but that’s the thing: It was invented more for parents than kids. But in the long-run, it’s not worth it. As Fort Myers speech pathologists, we generally advise stepping away from the sippy cup (or never offering one in the first place).
Your child’s oral motor development is critical to so many functions, and sippy cups may directly impact that.