HCDE Occupational Therapist Helps Problem-Solve to Equip Katy Teen with Disabilities During COVID-19

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April 9, 2020 by HCDE-Texas

(April is National Occupational Therapy Month, and we salute the HCDE therapists who are staffed in Harris County schools. HCDE therapists serve 7,000 students yearly.)

Like many students, Anna Whitten is stuck at home during COVID-19. Because of her learning disabilities, the Katy ISD Seven Lakes High School student faces many more adaptive challenges than the typical teen. Harris County Department of Education occupational therapist Wendy Larson has helped change all that.

Whitten, a student with cerebral palsy who uses her eyes to communicate, was left without her “eye gaze” device as schools were closed. Through a two-hour, online Zoom session with Larson, Katy ISD technology specialist Joyce Waggoner and Anna’s mom, things turned around for the 17-year old.

The augmentative, voice-output device accessed via eye gaze is attached to Anna’s computer and must be precisely calibrated to work properly. Larson got the call last week as frustrated mom Paige Siemers retrieved the computer and tried to set up the device to no avail. Because of social distancing, the technology issues had to be resolved virtually.

Mother, technology specialist and occupational therapist worked with Anna to calibrate the device. Tedious adjustments were interrupted as the host’s Internet failed. Two hours later, the team connected the device.

Tears of frustration were replaced by Anna’s wide smile as her communication barriers dissolved.  Like four astronauts landing on the moon, the team cheered and celebrated their accomplishments.

“This is a new frontier,” said Larson. “It made me realize that therapists aren’t necessarily the forefront of learning, but we are definitely the support.”

“Our therapists love the students that they serve, and it shows in all that they are doing now to help support them through these very challenging times.” – Carrie Crabb, senior director for School-Based Therapy Services

HCDE’s School-Based Therapy Services Senior Director Carie Crabb says OTs are essential because they help students with disabilities participate in their daily routines and activities at school. HCDE employs approximately 150 occupational and physical therapists, music therapists and assistants throughout the Harris County school districts, providing contract services for approximately 7,000 students yearly.

“OTs focus on academics, play and leisure, social participation, self-care skills and transition or work skills,” said Crabb. “Occupational therapy services include analyzing and modifying tasks, routines and environments to reduce the barriers to participation.”

Because technology often plays such a large part in serving children with disabilities, therapists face challenges as classrooms move from school to the home. Parents of children with disabilities also find themselves without many of the support and caregiving services they depend upon because of social distancing.

“Home life is so different,” said Larson. “With digital and home learning, we don’t know what families are going through.”

Anna’s mom is thankful for the freedom that the new technology at home is giving her daughter. Larson routinely calls to work with the teen on her homework assignments, identifying any challenges she may have with completing assignments from her teachers.

“I have never wanted her to just sit in front of the TV,” her mom said. “For a kid that can’t verbalize, she is sharp as a tack. I am always trying to find learning activities that enlighten her intellect and help her feel stimulated.”

Larson has worked with Anna for five years as a therapist serving students in Katy ISD. Reflecting on the team effort to help Anna, she says so much of her job involves problem-solving and finding solutions. In the end, tears-turned-to-smiles are well worth it.

“Therapists (during COVID) are capitalizing on their creativity and knowledge of analyzing and modifying tasks and curriculum to develop unique ways to support students in their new ‘home classrooms,’” said Crabb of the therapists and managers who work in her division.

“Our therapists love the students that they serve, and it shows in all that they are doing now to help support them through these very challenging times.”

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