Children with special needs typically pair up with pediatric therapists and educators who assist them with everything from speech, to joint movement, to calming their nerves—whatever the individual child needs to help make their daily lives a bit more manageable. Many of these children thrive on routine and that special person-to-person bond they share with their therapists. However, like so many other aspects of our lives right now, early intervention services for children are undergoing major shifts.
Since the global pandemic has lead to the closure of pediatric sensory gyms and special needs schools, many of these kids have been without their much-needed speech, occupational, physical, and Applied Behavior Analytics (ABA) therapies for weeks. For many other children, their sessions are now virtual, as their parents or guardians now video chat with the therapists and lessons are moved to Zoom, FaceTime or another live video source—which can lead to some confusion and emotional distress for children who don’t understand why the therapist they’re used to seeing in person is now on a gadget’s screen, not sitting right next to them.
As daunting as remote teletherapy can be, especially since now caregivers are temporarily stepping into the role of therapist, it actually can be beneficial for special needs kids—so don’t dismiss it quite yet!
“It is undoubtedly ‘better than nothing’ and the overall feedback from children and parents has been very positive,” says Joe Madonia, Lead Therapist for Pediatric Rehab at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, IL. “Certain age groups and diagnoses can benefit more than others, but at the very least it has allowed for an opportunity to review progress and monitor adherence to a child’s therapy plan that was in place before COVID-19.”
New York City-based pediatric physical therapist Heather Cook, co-founder of The Kidz Lounge, says for most of her kids who transitioned from in-person sessions to tele-sessions, she’s loving it. “The parents have become so involved and work with the kids on their goals all week; I also love seeing the kids at home with family interaction.” Since tele-sessions are new and different, Cook is preparing more unique treatment plans for her kids. Understandably—unless the child’s parent just happens to also be a physical therapist!—Cook finds that the parents don’t always understand what she is explaining, “but this gets better with experience. I’m now drawing diagrams of the ‘obstacle courses’ I want for the child and sending parents texts beforehand of items needed for our next video session.” These obstacle courses can be set up at the child’s home by the parent using stools, pillows, blankets, beach balls—whatever items the parents have on-hand that Cook can use, virtually.
Some therapists, such as Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, of Boulder, CO, likes tele-sessions so much she plans to incorporate them into her practice, even once she’s able to see kids in-person again. “I typically make home visits, so my kids are missing our time together. When we do connect via Tele-practice, their faces just light up!” gushes Potock, a Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist. “That enthusiasm helps the parents engage too, especially during a time when they are trying to work from home and help their kids with online schooling.”
Kids need consistency in any type of therapy, says Potock, and “a teletherapy model provides an excellent way to carryover any skills the child has previously learned, prevents regression in skills and boosts new skills, too.” When home visits resume, Potock believes tele-sessions will provide flexibility to limit the spread of germs when a child’s sibling is home sick, or when adverse weather causes an in-person session to be cancelled. Other therapists find long-term value in teletherapy thanks to the ease of recording and documenting kids’ progress, or being able to more easily reach remote or rural clients.
Interested in seeing if virtual teletherapy is right for your family? The Center For Connected Health Policy, a nonprofit dedicated to integrating telehealth virtual technologies into the health care system, offers frequent updates on rapidly-changing tele-health policies across the country. In some states it’s a reimbursable service during a declared state of emergency, even if it isn’t normally covered. If you have insurance, call your insurance carrier to ask what options you have, and whether or not you need a prior authorization for teletherapy to be covered. Then contact your child’s therapist or service provider to find out if they’re able to provide tele-sessions, and your next steps for getting started. If they’re unable to meet with your child remotely, ask for a referral for a therapist who can.
If your child was receiving early intervention services through school, and school is now closed (but is still providing educational services, like remote learning), the Department of Education has determined that “schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP.” Similarly, for babies and toddlers receiving early intervention services (EIS), if the office of the state lead agency or EIS program or provider is open, the lead agency must ensure continuity of services. Reach out to the school and your child’s IEP teams to find out which services are available; again, the legality of offering tele-sessions varies by state, but they will be able to advise you on the options available to your child.
Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.
For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.