By ROGER MOONEY
Beth Flowers logs onto the computer set up in the dining area of the family’s home, and within seconds, Allison Geller, the speech language pathologist who will spend the next hour working with Beth’s daughter, appears on the screen.
Welcome to the world of telepractice.
The Flowers live in Perry, Florida, a rural community in the state’s Big Bend where, Beth said, the nearest speech pathologist is 50 miles away in Tallahassee.
Beth could make the 100-mile round trip three times a week with Bralyn, 12, who is on the autism spectrum and is developmentally delayed. But that’s an inconvenience she wants to avoid, especially since her son Drayden, 8, would be included.
“That’s a lot, to load two small kids (in the car),” Beth said. “(And) it’s not that easy for a child with the daily struggle Bralyn deals with.”
Instead, Bralyn, with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs, works with a speech language pathologist who could not be any closer to her home even though the practice is located nearly 200 miles south in Tampa.
Geller is just two mouse clicks and a login away.
How simple is that?
“No kidding,” Beth said. “It’s amazing.”
Bralyn was born 16 weeks premature. She weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces. As an infant, she needed physical therapy so she could hold her head up. She then needed more physical therapy to learn to sit and walk.
Bralyn lacked hand-eye coordination and muscle tone, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Special Olympian, who participates in swimming, gymnastics and soccer skills.
She loves tubbing down the nearby Suwanee River, camping and singing.
Bralyn can cover any song from classic rock to today’s hits.
“She’s been our radio in the woods,” her mom said. “She’s right on key. There’ll be no other music. It’s straight a cappella, and before you know it, you’re snapping your fingers.”
Beth and her husband Marti decided to home-school Bralyn when she was 8. That left their daughter without access to the speech therapist provided by their district school. Bralyn’s parents could help her with physical and occupational therapy, but for speech therapy, Bralyn needed a professional, and those are hard to find if you live in Perry. Because of that, Bralyn went two years without speech therapy.
Beth was almost resigned to load her children in the car and make the long commute to Tallahassee when she had an idea.
One night in the summer of 2018, she Googled, “online speech therapy.”
Up popped Connected Speech Pathology, Geller’s practice.
“I was at my wits’ end. I had no idea it even existed,” Beth said. “I was taking a shot in the dark. It was heaven-sent.”
The daily routine
Geller has been a speech language therapist for 18 years. She began her telepractice in the spring of 2018 to reach clients who have transportation issues or cannot leave the house.
Telepractice is convenient for stroke victims or Parkinson Disease patients or someone with a weakened immune system and must be in a controlled environment, though those disabilities are not covered with the Gardiner Scholarship.
Melissa Jakubowitz, the coordinator for the telepractice special interest group for the American Speech Language and Hearing Association, said telepractice began in the late 1990s and really took off this decade.
“All the research that is available to date shows that it is as effective (as in-person visits with a speech pathologist),” she said. “There is some newer research with kids on the spectrum showing that it might be more effective for kids on the spectrum than in-person therapy, which is really fascinating to me.
“I am eagerly awaiting for more research to come out in that area because I think it might make a big difference for kids on the spectrum down the road and it may be a more preferred way to treat them if the research holds up.”
Geller, who is licensed to practice in Florida, New York and Kansas, uses Zoom, a video conferencing program that allows Bralyn to access the screen and, with the use of her mouse, click on images and boxes and write answers.
“It’s interactive, so it keeps them engaged,” Geller said. “And kids love the remote control.”
They work together for an hour each week, and Geller leaves Beth with instructions and activities for Bralyn to work on before the next session.
Geller’s work with Bralyn is more than just improving her speech. They work on communication and cognitive skills.
Bralyn is learning the different denominations of money and how to use them, how to interpret traffic and safety signs, recognize the changes in the weather and how to dress accordingly, how to prepare herself to go out in public, how to communicate with an adult as opposed to someone her own age, how to write and mail a letter.
One of the first things Geller did with Bralyn was compose a song about her daily routine so she can perform simple tasks many take for granted without being prompted by her mother. Knowing Bralyn’s love of singing, Geller put the song to the tune of “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.
“Wake up in the morning it’s a great day …”
That’s followed by wash your face, eat breakfast, make your bed, get dressed and so on.
“Bralyn learned that song in two days,” Beth said. “My child can now sing her daily routine and remember.”
‘Sunshine in my life’
Beth is pleased with the strides her daughter has made in the year she has worked with Geller. Her vocabulary has not only improved, but so has her ability to use words correctly.
“Bralyn sometimes says things way out of context, but I can tell when certain subjects have clicked because of how she said it,” Beth said. “If you’re talking about money, she might have said, ‘I have monies to buy things.’ Instead she will say, ‘I have money. I can buy things’ or ‘to buy things with.’”
Geller, who has not met Bralyn or Beth in person (but hopes to the next time the Special Olympics is held in Central Florida), has noticed improvements in Bralyn’s communication skills from watching the videos Beth sends from the Special Olympic competitions.
Geller sees a 12-year-old girl laughing and dancing with the other competitors.
“Her face is lit up. She’s so happy and engaged with her friends,” Geller said. “I think she uses a lot of these social skills and communication skills when she’s out there in the real world communicating with other people.”
Beth said her daughter believes in the Little Mermaid, believes in Prince Charming and cannot wait to become a teenager.
“She wants whatever’s good in the world,” Beth said.
Beth calls Bralyn, “the sunshine in my life. It’s impossible to have a bad day with that much happiness.”
But Beth knows Bralyn will never be able to live unsupervised. Still, she wants her daughter to have as much independence as possible. Improving her communications skills is a huge step in that direction. “I want Bralyn to blossom to her fullest potential and do for herself as much as she can,” Beth said. “Obviously, and she wants that for herself, as well. Without (Geller’s) services, that will hinder her even more.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.