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Health Spotlight: Program turns play into progress for kids with complex disabilities

Health Spotlight: When play becomes progress

(WISH) — A new program can help children with complex conditions reach their full potential.

Playing is a rite of passage for children, but not all of them get to enjoy a playground, birthday party or recess. Kids born with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or other complex disabilities are often left out, or their disability makes the children unable to participate.

Like every child, 4-year-old Marlie Ellison loves to play, but, her mother, Damianna Quinones, said, “Marlie has seizures every day.”

Marlie was a micropreemie when she was born. “She was only a pound and a half,” Quinones said.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Marlie goes to therapy nine times a week, but one therapy is different from all the rest. Marlie is part of a what’s being called an innovative program that uses play to help develop communication and motor skills.

Jennifer Tucker is a clinical associate professor in the physical therapy program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She said, “What we know is that all children have a desire to play, but they need to access that play differently.”

The program was designed to have pediatric physical therapists and speech therapists work together to help children with complex conditions reach their full potential.

Julie Feuerstein is an assistant professor in communication sciences and disorders at the University of Central Florida. She said, “So as my colleague is working on positioning and seating and mobility, and I’m working on communication, the child is getting the benefit of all of those kinds of approaches at once, which is the way that development occurs.”

The program’s goal is to help Marlie and other children express themselves.

Feuerstein said, “Marlie’s really good at using her facial expressions, her body movements, her gestures to communicate with her environment and with the people and her peers.”

Tucker said, “I think what we’ve seen with her is really increased engagement with her peers, increased engagement with us.”

Marlie’s mom said, “It’s hard to find moments where I can see, ‘Oh, Marlie actually enjoys that,’ but I do see that here.”

The play therapy program at the University of Central Florida tries to find multiple ways for children to learn to communicate: their eyes, utilizing buttons and switches, or just through their smiles. The program coordinators say each child is different, but once the children find a way to communicate, it’s the first step to really giving them control and the ability to engage with others.

This story was created from a script aired on WISH-TV. Health Spotlight is presented by Community Health Network.