Speech and language services get creative with communication

A girl in a pink striped sweater points to an iPad while seated in front of a teacher in a classroom.

A student at the Eden School works on her communication skills using an iPad during a speech session.

Eden participant Tom ended his virtual speech session by telling the staff some jokes. Craig ended his session with a smile and wink. While speech and language services at Eden may look different due to the pandemic, the enthusiasm and relationship between the participants and staff remains as strong as ever.

Eden’s speech and language services were one of many programs to move to a virtual setting starting last March as a precaution against the coronavirus. Rather than going into classrooms or the adult day centers to meet with participants, the speech team worked across the organization to make the transition. This included working with residential supervisors, managers, the IT department, the Therap team, DSPs, the day program and residential staff, the clinical department and directors across both day and residential programs.

“We have such a great team,” said Christine DeHart, Director of Speech and Language Services. “We all worked collaboratively to make this happen. The therapist provides directions and shows visual cues on the screen, but then we need the DSPs who are with the participant to prompt appropriately. Without their help, this would not be possible.”

One of the benefits of virtual speech sessions, has been the inclusion of DSPs and other staff members because it allows them to see how well the participants can communicate. This provides staff a better insight into their capabilities and a greater understanding of their communication skills. Then, it is easier to generalize these skills into the home and community settings.

Each participant’s session is individualized according to their ISP (individualized service plan), and the speech team further adjusts each session to work around how long they can attend during a session. Some participants can handle 30-minute sessions, while other participants have their sessions broken up into smaller segments. “We’re allowed to walk away from our work when we need a break, the participants should as well,” said Christine. “We’re providing each individual with the ability to make those requests — to take a walk, take a break — because that’s what we can do.”

While some individuals struggled with the transition to the virtual platform, the speech staff paired with the help from our amazing DSPs, eased the participants into the new medium. One participant, in particular, who started with 2-minute sessions is now attending for 25 minutes of speech at once. “It’s just so great to see that progression during the pandemic in addition to staff collaboration,” Christine said.

Since last March, 2,085 hours of virtual speech therapy were delivered by Eden staff. This equates to 8,340 units from March 2020 to March 2021. That number will begin to dwindle as services, such as the school, begin to transition back to in-person learning.

Delivery of speech and language services were always part of the school curriculum, but it only became a part of the adult services programming 6 years ago. “We worked with the individuals until they were 21 when they went to the adult center, but communication doesn’t end there,” said Christine. The adult speech program started small, with just about five individuals partaking in the program, but today 97 of Eden’s adult participants receive speech services. Eden has added 1 full-time speech therapist, and 1 part-time therapist over the last 2 years to keep up with the growing need. Eden is also looking to add a new position for FY21 because this area is growing so rapidly.

As more minimally verbal individuals with autism continue to learn how to express themselves, Christine hopes that the broader community will not only recognize but respect their communication methods.

“Multi-modal communication is so important,” she said. “We communicate with our hands, through texting or a phone call; We’re allowed all these different modes. We should respect that if an individual with autism wants to use a sign, that’s okay. If they use verbal language, an iPad, or pictures as long as their communication is universally understood, it’s something that we should respect and reinforce.”