By Tara Thompson
Two words that if you’re a special needs parent you have probably heard more then once; that ‘magic potion’ that will tremendously help your child to reach their full potential. The first 5 years are critical in laying the foundations for all areas of learning and development (cerebralpalsy.org.au). Early intervention is all about using time effectively and not allowing it to go by without fighting against the damage to the brain to retrain neural connections.
Early Intervention has played a huge part in our everyday activities since my daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 7 months.
From 9 months I was on an early intervention mission, not only to surround her with therapy sessions but to also follow up and playfully incorporate it at home as much as possible. I remember at just 17 months her physiotherapist stopped focusing on crawling at appointments as it very much frustrated my daughter and, due to the type of damage to her brain the therapist felt that it would be extremely unlikely that she would be able to crawl. I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite ready to dismiss the crawling milestone and continued to incorporate it into our own home therapy program. She began slowly crawling at 20 months and today you wouldn’t want to go up against her in a crawling race!
It made me think back to the beginning of my daughter’s diagnosis, when she wasn’t even aware of her right hand, when she would get extremely frustrated as she only had one hand to play with. Three years later she now tries to incorporate the use of that hand without prompts and cues. Slowly but surely it’s becoming more natural to use both hands and slowly but surely we are retraining neural connections from the brain.
How amazing is that?! I often have people message me and comment on our Instagram page (@willows_cpjourney) about how they wish their child would be happy to take part in therapy at home and about how Willow seems to tolerate it so well.
While she does enjoy it now at home (most of the time) it took us a long time to get here and it’s really only been the last few months she has really started to enjoy all the activities and actually asks if we can ‘play’ therapy together.
I really think this is because we worked so hard in the beginning; we didn’t give up even though it was so tough 90% of the time. She has learnt skills during the years and these skills have made things more enjoyable overall but particularly in continuing our therapy journey today.
So, on the topic of early intervention and incorporating it into our life I have compiled a list of tips that have helped us in the past and still do today;
1. Timeframe – My daughter has always done better with short bursts. Sometimes we just do 20 minutes a day which for us has more benefits then 1 day a week of a longer session. It means she stays on track, she doesn’t get as frustrated, it’s consistent, remains familiar and it’s easier to implement. If she is happier to go longer and time permits then great or if we can fit two or three 20 minute blocks in then even better.
2. Consistency – There are times where doing activities is too much and we have a break but in general over the last few years we have stayed consistent with not only keeping it up but coming up with new ideas to keep her interested.
3. Play – Therapy is play. You don’t need flash, fancy and overly expensive therapy ideas. As long as you’re playful with your approach there will be less frustration and more willingness.
4. Choices – always remember to give choices. It might be that you have a box of activities you want to try – ask your child first which one they would like to do with the options at their eye level. Another idea is to make a visual board for them to point at to show what they want to do next. If the type of activity permits ask them how many times would they like to try it. Giving them choices makes them feel they have some power over what they’re doing and they aren’t being forced to do things.
5. Interests – Base things around your child’s interests. This is a huge one. My daughter has always loved dolls but sometimes the skills we are working on makes it a bit difficult to incorporate doll play. To accomodate this I have laminated pictures of dolls and we use those for different things too. Incorporate their interests but also think outside the box.
6. Routine – I am such a routine sort of person and so is my daughter. Since she was tiny I have always written times in the diary where I know I am free to have some one-on-one therapy time with her. At the moment it’s when her baby sister has her morning sleep.
7. Variety – make sure there is variety in the activities you do. My daughter gets frustrated quite easily and if I gave her the same thing to do repetitively she wouldn’t even try. Offering variety keeps children motivated and engaged. I always aim to add 1 or 2 new things in a week. This might be something as simple as hiding a new toy in a kitchen whisk for bimanual therapy.
8. Rewards – Some children are reward focused, maybe have a sticker chart or a small treat for therapy sessions.
9. Timer – we have recently incorporated a timer into our sessions. When Willow is getting frustrated I will bring it out and show her how much longer we have to go. The excitement of finishing before it beeps is often enough motivation to keep her going. Timers are great visual reminders.
10. Environment – Have a look at where you are doing therapy – sometimes maybe the environment needs to be tweaked. Perhaps somewhere with fewer distractions, or maybe outside works better or different rooms.
11. Be organised – This is huge for me. I am an organised person anyway but I find it helps so much with keeping myself engaged and on top of therapy. For example, with occupational therapy we take turns on focusing on both bimanual and constraint therapy. I always ensure I swap my cupboards around to make sure what I am working on with my daughter is easily accessible. It also makes it easier to set up and save time.
12. Use everyday items – Ever heard someone say at a birthday “all these presents and all they want to play with is the wrapping paper”? Yep, I have found the truth is that most children, especially younger children, aren’t overly interested in toys. They want to explore the house, tip things out of drawers and play with Tupperware. Take a look around the house and recycle things to use in your session.. Therapy doesn’t have to be expensive, just use everyday items.
13. Involve siblings – it’s hard to not feel guilty that you are leaving siblings out so involve them – it may not go to plan but that’s fine – more often then not it’s siblings that motivate your child and who they learn most from.
14. Different therapies – My daughter doesn’t tolerate the traditional therapies (physiotherapy and occupational therapy) too well. While these are important to always continue, we incorporate other activities such as yoga, horse-riding, swimming, gymnastics and music as well. This means she is still gaining the benefits but can maybe have a break from the intensity of the other more traditional therapies.
15. Take a break – Do not feel guilty for taking a break. It’s a long journey, one that can take its toll and everyone. You need a break, your child needs a break and a lot of the time I have found that after a break is when my daughter seems to master something we have been working on. While all children tolerate therapies in their own unique way and family dynamics are different these tips are what has helped us to keep powering through.
I can say with 110% certainty that keeping up with therapy at home on a daily basis has made my daughter become the strong, capable and fiercely independent girl she is today. She just keeps surprising everyone around her and keeps on smashing through milestones which at times didn’t even seem be a part of her future.
Early Intervention is crucial and an absolute must to be able to retrain those neurological pathways. It plays the most important and critical role in assisting your child to reach their upmost potential.