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Friday, April 08, 2011 - Pediatric therapy turns out to be “saving grace” for Karns family

Call it mother’s intuition perhaps, but Jennifer Dean of Karns felt like something wasn’t typical about her infant son, Alex. He seemed different than her first son was at that age.

“Even when he was just six months old, I thought he had autism because he wasn’t responding to me. He would just cry all day,” said Dean.

Since beginning therapy at 16 months old, Alex Dean, now age 3,
has worked with the same pediatric speech, occupational and
physical therapists, pictured from left: Patti Carnes, M.A., CCC/SLP;
Crystal Cline, OTR/L, and Jennifer Walkup, DPT.

Dean was right about her child. Alex was eventually diagnosed with a condition called PPD-NOS, which stands for Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, a form of autism.

At 16 months of age, Alex began receiving physical, speech and occupational therapy at Methodist Therapy Center in Oak Ridge.

The center offers complete pediatric rehabilitation therapies on its second floor, and handles nearly 10,000 pediatric patient visits per year. It has nearly a dozen staff members who work with children who have autism disorders, developmental delays, feeding or swallowing disorders, neurological injuries, orthopedic injuries, and other conditions that can affect children’s speech or motor coordination.

In three appointments each week, the therapists who worked with Alex first worked to help him express himself and learn to handle new textures and tastes.

 “They would always ask me what the issues were that we were having at home. They asked specifically what they needed to work with,” said Dean. “For Alex, that’s sensory issues.”

For example, Alex didn’t like the feel or taste of a toothbrush and toothpaste in his mouth, or foam soap on his hands.

“It would upset him and he’d freak out,” said Dean. “He has tantrums, his whole body shakes and his hands flap, he grits his teeth. That has improved dramatically since he first went to Methodist Therapy.”

Occupational therapist Crystal Cline worked with Alex on sensory issues by repeatedly placing his hands in a bucket of dried beans, to get him used to new textures.

“Not that we go around touching beans,” Dean explained, “but we are required to touch different things throughout the day. Alex needs to get used to them so he can handle it better.”

For communication, speech pathologist Patti Carnes first used sign language, then picture words, with Alex. It was a strategy Dean used at home as well.

“We did the card charts, picture charts,” said Dean. “I made all these different little boards with pictures so he could show me what he wanted to do and play.”

Coordination has also been a challenge for Alex, who wears orthopedic braces on his feet.

“His feet are kind of turned a little bit, so the braces are correcting that,” said Dean. Physical therapist Jennifer Walkup works with Alex on balance and coordination.

“It’s how to kick a ball, throw a ball, walk on a line,” said Dean. “It’s a lot about eye hand coordination and balance.”

These three therapists have worked with Alex throughout his time at Methodist Therapy Center, because continuity has been important to him.  

“Routine is a big part of improving,” Dean said. “Children like Alex have to stay with the same therapist, where they know what’s going to happen, to be productive. We’ve formed a friendship, too. I don’t know what I’d do without these women.”  

Today, Alex is much better able to handle everyday tasks and new experiences.

“His words are unbelievable,” said Dean. “He can recognize letters of the alphabet, numbers. He knows his colors. I think he’s smarter than the average three-year-old. He speaks very well.”

Dean said she would recommend Methodist Therapy Center to anyone who needs services for their child. In fact, it has inspired her to go back to school in occupational therapy, so that she can help not only Alex, but other children someday as well.

“I love Methodist Therapy, I’ve been very pleased with it,” Dean said. “It was Alex’s saving grace. If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know where we’d be. I think Alex would be lost.”