Thomas can communicate, walk and even ride a bike - all things doctors told his parents, Denise and Jerry, he would never do. Thomas was born at 26 weeks gestation. Along with extreme prematurity, he has also been diagnosed with autism, Chronic Lung Disease, reflux, severe visual impairment, spastic diplegia, and oral aphasia. Although Denise and Jerry were hopeful, doctors didn’t share in that hope. Despite the prognosis, Thomas’ parents decided not to give up on this tough little boy who has proved to beat all of the odds.
Thomas came to Heartspring in January 2009 for speech and occupational therapies. According to Thomas’ speech-language pathologist Diane Gough, children diagnosed with autism often always have apraxia of speech, where the coordination between what the brain tells the muscles of speech to do is interrupted. Thomas, however, can mimic the sound of a steam locomotive, just like his favorite cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine and all of Thomas’ friends. Additionally, Thomas knows the difference between the sirens of a police car and a fire engine and between an American ambulance versus one from Europe. He can also imitate them all. “You would think that someone with these auditory and imitation skills would be able to use our language with great ease,” said Diane. “Not so for Thomas. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t communicate. His facial expressions, vocalizations, behaviors and gestures get his point across very well.”
“Like the siren sounds, when you hear things repetitively, and practice it over and over, these connections begin to work better,” said Diane. “That is one of the main things we do in speech therapy for Thomas - provide him with opportunities to practice sounds, words, and now short phrases to help him increase his ability to use speech.”
Many teachers and therapists have helped him to be a better communicator with picture systems and currently with a voice output device (a lower tech, mini-computer like device) that talks for him when he pushes pictures of things he would like to say.
His voice output device plays a big role in Thomas’ therapy. When Thomas hears a recorded voice ask for his favorite “Thomas the Tank Engine” book, the connection in his brain is stimulated. Since beginning therapy at Heartspring Thomas has begun to use his voice more. “Our goal is to use all these methods to ensure that Thomas can become a better communicator and all people in his environment can understand him,” said Diane.
Thomas recently stopped seeing Mimi French for occupational therapy where he worked on fine motor activities, self-help skills including dressing, general play skills, and how to use his voice output device. Mimi noted that Thomas definitely responds well and works best when there is music involved. “If one sings the directions to Thomas you can possibly get him to attempt the task,” she said. “He requires much sensory input to help regulate his sensory system and to help him be more available for learning. Using auditory, vestibular, and proprioceptive input helps Thomas get his mind and body ready to work.”
Thomas made the most progress in self-help skills and dressing skills. He also made progress in lessening his behaviors and the ability to complete a non-preferred task in order to earn his favorite activity: reading a book about Thomas the Tank Engine. “Thomas is a delightful and fun boy whose smile can melt one’s heart. He is fortunate to be part of such a loving and involved family,” said Mimi French.
Denise and Jerry are dedicated parents who have always known Thomas, now 11 years old, had potential to do anything. Jerry said that many skills have been a long time coming. Thomas walked, toilet trained and started talking later than most children. The things they thought would come at three or four years old didn’t come until he was eight or nine years old. “You don’t give up,” said Jerry.
Kim Becker, director of Pediatric Services has known Thomas since he was a toddler. “This amazing child has always shown potential. Thomas comes at things in his own way, at his own pace. I have been so excited and pleased to see him grow and change through the years. From walking, to beginning to use pictures and devices to communicate, and now talking,” she said. “When I watch Thomas ride the bike down the hall to speech and look through books pointing to pictures and saying what they are, I smile and I am proud of all he is able to achieve. I am humbled by his parents’ choices to give to Thomas every opportunity to be everything he can be. Thomas is the hope, the future to families of children with extreme prematurity, autism, visual impairment, and any other ‘different’ need.”