Mimi French accidentally hit her knee on the table during a recent occupational therapy session with six-year-old Christian. Immediately he asked, “You ok, Mimi?” his eyes showing his concern. But that’s just Christian, as his parents Marilea and Dave will tell you. A loving little boy with a sweet and gentle spirit, Christian cares for others who are hurting, even when he himself suffers from a variety of special needs.
Diagnosed with global developmental delay when he was two years old, Christian is behind in every area of development; something Marilea, who already had a daughter, noticed when he was very young. “For me flags went up fairly early,” she said. “I tried to give the ‘boys develop later than girls’ thing a chance, but after a while I knew there was something more.”
A referral from Christian’s pediatrician led them to Heartspring Pediatric Services for a speech evaluation. Christian began speech therapy in June 2007 when he was two years old.
Shortly after Christian started speech at Heartspring his therapist suggested he get an occupational therapy evaluation after noticing some fine motor skill delays. Before long, Christian was receiving occupational and physical therapies along with speech.
Not satisfied with his diagnosis, Dave and Marilea hoped to find something to better describe Christian’s special needs. “Physically he’s a perfectly normal kiddo,” said Marilea. “The only thing we can point to as to what has caused his problems is a lack of oxygen at birth.”
According to Marilea, a diagnosis for global developmental delay can be a double-edged sword because it doesn’t refer to anything specific. “Insurance companies often don’t recognize it (as a disability) and won’t pay for therapies,” said Marilea. “It’s like they think, ‘Oh, he’ll catch up. Oh, he’ll be alright.’” Additionally, some school districts won’t allow individualized education plans (IEP) for children with a global developmental delay diagnosis past kindergarten. Next year Christian will enter the first grade.
So they set out to try to find more answers for Christian. “If there’s anything we can do to help our son – if it’s even remotely in our budget, within driving distance, within our time, effort and energy, and isn’t too much of a sacrifice on anyone else in the family – we’ll do it,” said Marilea.
In January 2011, after a myriad of testing over four years, Christian was diagnosed with mild mental retardation, ADHD and sensory processing disorder. “It’s been nice to finally have something to put our fingers on,” said Marilea. With his current diagnosis Christian’s new IEP has been put into place for next fall.
At Heartspring, Christian is making gains slowly but surely. Mimi French, Christian’s occupational therapist, has been working with him since 2008. The overall goal of occupational therapy is to help Christian reach his full potential in fine motor, visual motor and self care skills. In order to be successful his therapy must include a variety of treatment techniques to increase strength, motor planning (coordination) and attention. Due to Christian’s high energy and difficulty with attention he needs his treatment plan to include a “sensory diet”. This is a program designed by an occupational therapist that helps families understand and provide the sensory input a child needs to obtain and maintain alertness necessary to participate in the day’s activities. Christian’s specific diet needs help him slow down so he can focus and learn new skills. “Christian quiets best and focuses well when working on his tummy,” said Mimi. “Music has also been an excellent way to help Christian learn to listen and control his speed. Christian is constantly thinking of what he wants to play with next, say next, or touch next. He needs the people in his life to understand his needs and how to help him slow his engine down to increase his ability to follow directions so he can learn, be less impulsive and still be the happy child that we all know and love.”
His concentration and hard work have paid off in occupational therapy. Today Christian is able to complete a 12-piece interlocking puzzle, get himself dressed and draw circles and Cs. Marilea has been working on handwriting skills with Christian in a home program Mimi recommended and he now has an outstanding grip and significantly improved hand strength. He is also recognizing some letters and when he is focused, can put the letters of his name together in order.
Thanks to Mimi’s suggestion of fulfilling Christian’s sensory needs by reading a book on his stomach to start each session, Emily Foerschler, his speech-language pathologist, has seen tremendous progress. “When we first started Christian had a very difficult time attending and participating in activities during our 30-minute sessions,” said Emily. “He was impulsive and had a difficult time listening. Now, after looking at a book of his choice on our tummies, he is ready to work. He still needs occasional redirections to the task, but is now able to attend for 30 minutes and complete all tasks. He really seems to enjoy working and playing during speech time.”
Christian and Emily are working on receptive and expressive language skills as well as specific speech sounds. “Christian’s expressive language has really progressed nicely,” said Emily. “He is consistently using full sentences to communicate and is able to take several turns in a conversation. I’ve enjoyed being able to carry on a conversation with Christian as his attention and language have improved. Every day during our sessions he says something to make me smile.”
Using reinforcers like “Toy Story” stickers or gummy bears has helped Christian complete various activities during therapies. Since working on gross motor skills (coordination, strength and balance) in physical therapy with Amber Teal is not one of his favorite things to do, having a reinforcer, or something to work toward, is important. “When we first started, he was only able to stand on his preferred foot for about three to four seconds and to stand on his non-preferred foot he needed to hold on to something,” said Amber. “We started using gummy bears as a reward and now Christian is able to rather consistently stand on his preferred foot for eight seconds and his non-preferred foot for six seconds all by himself.”
Spending several hours each week at Heartspring (Christian has two half-hour sessions each of speech and occupational therapies and one half-hour session of physical therapy), his therapists and other staff have become like family to Marilea. “They are invaluable,” she said. “They have invested just as much effort and energy and blood, sweat and tears as we have. They have literally locked arms with us and are marching down the path with us.”
Having that level of commitment from Christian’s therapists has meant a lot to Dave and Marilea. “As a parent at Heartspring you know the therapists are on your side and it’s endless the ideas they come up with that don’t come naturally to me. They’ve taught me to broaden my horizons. They’ve encouraged me,” she said. “When you watch your kid struggle for days and weeks and months with zipping his pants and Mimi comes out to tell me he put his shoes on by himself – it’s the little things that keep you going. There is just no way we can ever repay them.”
A lot of Christian’s success can be attributed to the endless support he receives from his family. His parents and siblings, Zoey, 10, and Gage, 4, are tireless advocates for Christian, often taking a back seat to ensure he receives all the help he needs. They realize Christian’s work doesn’t start and stop at Heartspring, but is ongoing. Frequently you will find obstacle courses constructed out of chairs, pillows and blankets in the living room so Christian can practice his gross motor skills. Other times they’ll pull out the Playdough and moon sand so Christian can work on writing his name in various textures. Mimi has been overly impressed with the involvement of Christian’s family. “They know he learns best with repetition and they give him plenty,” she said.
“Coming to Heartspring is definitely a family affair,” said Marilea. “We’ll talk about it the night before. We’ll say ‘Tomorrow is a Heartspring day so we have to go to bed early.’” Of course he’s always looking forward to the sucker at the end of therapy, said Marilea.
With all the progress Christian has made during his time at Heartspring, it almost had to come to an end when his dad was laid off from one of the aircraft companies in town. “When Dave lost his job we lost our insurance,” said Marilea. “We got new insurance, but it wouldn’t cover more than 20 speech visits. No OT, no PT. So we had to tell Heartspring we couldn’t come anymore.”
Determined to keep Christian in therapies, Heartspring staff members immediately completed the necessary paperwork so Christian could receive funds from the Financial Assistance Program, ensuring he receives the therapies he desperately needs. “We’re indebted to Heartspring,” said Marilea. “We had thought we weren’t going to be able to keep going with therapy and then all of a sudden our routine didn’t have to change at all. Tears just started coming. The blessings from Heartspring just keep coming.”
Marilea and Dave are truly grateful to those who support the Financial Assistance Program. “Christian does not just belong to us. He is a Heartspring kid therefore he belongs to each individual who supports Heartspring,” said Marilea. “Every time he reaches a goal or does something he has been working so hard to do for weeks or months, I shed a tear as his mom knowing how hard those accomplishments are for him. But I also shed a tear wishing those that give understood the impact they have on the rest of his life.”
In 2010, Christian was one of the faces of Lights on the Lake, Heartspring’s signature fundraising event, even participating in a radio show that aired during the Drive Thru. His photograph was on one of the billboards located on campus and according to Marilea, he made her drive by twice a day for at least a month. “He thought that was so cool,” she said. “Every time we drove through he’d say, ‘That’s me, mom!’”
Even with all of Christian’s success he still has a long way to go. Recent evaluations still place him well below where he should be developmentally, but he is always working toward the next goal. “We’re realistic,” said Marilea. “Long term, we want Christian to do the very best he can do. We don’t let him off the hook. We expect him to have manners. We expect him to listen and obey. We expect him to do the right thing. Sometimes we have to ask him to obey in a different way or do something different to get the message across, but nonetheless, he is able to do that.”
To his family, Christian is a teacher. “He is such a blessing to us,” said Marilea. “He teaches us way more than we have taught him. He has taught us what really counts in life; to laugh with deep belly laughs, love more, stress less, continue learning how to help those we love the very best we can. He has forced our family to learn to work as a team in order to share each other’s burdens. He has been a visual reminder to our family of gratefulness, compassion, love and patience. Through him everyone in our family has learned to be a better person.”
In the end, Christian is surrounded by love. “I will always have hope for my son that he will be able to achieve his very best,” said Marilea. “Sure there have been plenty of tears and frustrations within the family, but we try not to let those last very long. And yet, when you live with him and he gives you a cuddle and a kiss and a hug you forget about all the reports. We try to stay positive for him and for us as well.”
With a support system like that it’s no wonder Christian is filled with so much compassion.