NAUGATUCK — Jennifer Harding watches video from two years ago of her son Derek sitting next to her on a couch saying ‘Please mom, please mom,’ wondering when Derek will regain the ability to string together sentences.
Derek is a 10-year-old boy who has autism, epilepsy, ADHD, tourettes and is nonverbal.
After years of waiting to hear Derek say his first words, Harding watched her son grow to ask for things he needed. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. When Derek says ‘please, mom,’ now, it sounds more like, ‘ease, ma,’ his mother said.
Inconsistent in-person speech therapy sessions and masks have caused Derek to start over, Harding said.
“It has truly been devastating,” she said of the pandemic’s impact on Derek’s speech development. “I waited until Derek was 8 years old for him to say ‘mom.’ Because of this pandemic, we’ve lost it and we don’t have it back yet.”
Speech pathologists and special education directors in the region say their focus is on recovering development for students who have been hit hard by the pandemic, especially those in the youngest grades and with autism.
Monica O’Neal, supervisor of special education for Waterbury schools, said she’s seeing the most developmental delays in kindergarten students.
Some kindergarten students, who have been diagnosed with autism, are receiving speech services for the first time this year, O’Neal said. Others in need of services have yet to receive them since officials are in the process of identifying the necessary support.
“Many of them haven’t been in programs previously, whereas I think if it wasn’t due to the pandemic, they probably would have had that experience,” O’Neal said. “We are seeing delays across the board in terms of communication, being able to follow routines.”
Children between the ages 18 months to 3 years, who did not have day care nor a lot of social interaction during the thick of the pandemic, are showing more intense speech delays and social anxiety, said Rachel Criscuolo, owner of The Speech Pathology Group, which offers clinical speech therapy in Southbury and Shelton.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s school mask mandate, which runs through at least early 2022, has challenged speech development, according to special-ed directors and speech pathologists.
Speech pathologists have tried to improvise by wearing special masks that have a clear cutout, said Laura Klimaszewski, executive director of student services for Torrington schools. Others have opted to wear clear shields despite lesser protection, she said.
Families are seeking speech services outside of school because children aren’t required to wear masks in the therapy room, while therapists wear clear masks, Criscuolo said. She said clients are developing at a similar rate seen before the pandemic.
“When you’re trying to learn how to do speech sounds, if you can’t watch someone’s mouth to imitate and to learn, it’s going to be twice as hard,” Criscuolo said.
Masks also make it hard for children, especially those with autism, to hear what is being said. When Harding says something in another room and her son Derek doesn’t see her, he struggles to process what she’s said.
“They use so many more senses than a typical person,” Harding said. “They have to hear it, see it, and sometimes with Derek, he even needs to feel it, whether he has to touch his lips or the speech therapist’s lips. Through COVID – in school, out of school, online school – they have lost so much.”
A focus in Torrington, Klimaszewski said, is having students communicate appropriately in social settings, such as waiting for their turn and knowing what to say at a specific time. Parents haven’t requested more time for their children to acquire speech skills they may have lost while learning remotely last year, Klimaszewski said.
All Connecticut public schools feature full in-person learning this year per a new state law.
“When kids didn’t acquire at the rate that they normally would have, there was a concern that there was going to be a huge influx in ‘Well, my child must have a disability,'” Klimaszewski said. “We need to try to find ways to really accelerate learning and give all children extra opportunities to gain those skills they lost, but it doesn’t mean they have a speech language impairment or a learning disability.”
PattyAnne Langston is the mother of two boys who receive speech therapy in Naugatuck schools and at The Speech Pathology Group. She said while her 11-year-old son Paul, a sixth-grader at Hillside Intermediate School, has developed well, things have been harder for her 9-year-old son, Miles, a fourth-grader at Western Elementary School.
When sessions shifted to teletherapy for months at the onset of the pandemic, Langston said she sat alongside Miles to ensure he stayed attentive. She also ingrained repetition exercises into their daily routine, asking the ‘W questions’ – who, what, when, where and why.
“He’s definitely on track as to where he should be going, but he still has a ways to go,” Langston said of Miles. “I know for a fact that if he hadn’t had teletherapy at all during the pandemic, he definitely would have regressed.”
Harding said teletherapy didn’t work well for her son Derek, who suffered severe tics often during the thick of the pandemic. To keep Derek on a routine similar to school, his mother said she paid for Derek to receive home-based therapy sessions via Danbury-based Autism Behavioral Health.
“Derek would look at the computer like, ‘Why is my teacher on a computer on a table in my living room?,'” she said. “Even with the typical kids, I think everybody forgets what structure, having peers does for a child and how much it means to them.”
As is the case with nearly all industries, special education directors are dealing with a shortage of speech pathologists.
Klimaszewski said recruiting efforts included reaching out to speech pathologists she worked with in the past who are now retired, while acquiring couple of pathologists who are friends of pathologists already working in the district.
The 10 pathologists spread across the district’s six school buildings is the normal level seen pre-pandemic, but Klimaszewski said several special-ed teachers will be leaving the district around the new year.
The number of pre-kindergarten students needing services also usually doubles by the end of the year, leaving an unknown on how many workers will be needed in the months ahead, Klimaszewski said.
“That’s going to be hard,” she said. “I’m going to have to focus on how to move people around to make sure everyone’s needs are met.”
Liza Zanca is a speech pathologist at the grade K-6 Highland School in Cheshire. She said she sees about 35 students per week. Her district used an outside agency to fill a vacancy and ensure a full staff of 10 speech pathologists, she said.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” she said, “but we are pretty resourceful and work well together to make it work.”
Despite the hardship, Harding said she’s confident her son Derek will be able to develop stronger once the pandemic subsides.
When the fifth-grader at ACES Village School in North Haven returns to his family’s Naugatuck home from school, he continues to receive home-based therapy from 3 to 6 p.m. each day. He has started regaining simple words, like ‘dog’ and ‘car,’ Harding said.
“You have to move forward every day,” she said. “I know I waited eight years for him to say ‘mom,’ and I knew what he was building toward. I know it’s in there. I want it for him. You can see how hard he is working. You can just see it now that they’re able to be with other kids again. He’s trying. He wants to speak.”