Oliver is a happy, smart and creative eight-year-old with endless amounts of energy. He and his mom, Annie, first came to A Chance To Grow 18 months ago to address a myriad of physical and emotional development concerns.
Early in Oliver’s life, Annie observed some unusual and worrisome behaviors. “From the time he could walk, he was falling down or crashing into things,” she said, “He’d walk on his toes and I didn’t know why.”
“He had a great experience in preschool,” said Annie. “He was performing well in a school environment, he made friends and his teachers didn’t raise any serious concerns about his behavior or speech delays.” Despite this, Annie and her husband were still concerned with his communication issues and began seeking help.
They decided to have him tested by a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) prior to beginning kindergarten to see if he could qualify for special education services through the school district. The SLP who conducted the test didn’t hear what Annie heard and recommended that he not receive speech therapy. It was the first of countless obstacles in the family’s search to get help for Oliver. A second test, with a different SLP, found that he qualified for an IEP, and at the age of five, Oliver began weekly speech therapy sessions.
“Kindergarten was OK for Oliver. His teacher knew how to head off his meltdowns, and he started physical therapy to help address his balance issues,” Annie recalled, “But there were red flags. I saw attention and impulsivity problems, no eye contact, and perseveration issues (the repetition of a particular response).”
At the end-of-the-year IEP meeting, she fully expected the school’s administration to recommend Oliver be evaluated by a doctor. To her surprise, the administration unanimously confirmed he was ready for first grade. Annie was thrilled, but intuitively, she knew something was still off.
Annie was a teacher at the private school Oliver attended. “He was starting first grade and I had my dream job and things were looking OK,” she said. “But that’s when the storm hit. The demands of first grade were beyond what Oliver was ready to take on. Our school didn’t have the resources to provide support for Oliver or for his teacher. Because of his frequent meltdowns and he’d often spend his days in the principal’s office.”
Meanwhile, Oliver’s physical therapy progress ground to a halt. His therapists would have him do activities that were not developmentally appropriate, like throwing and catching a ball, and Oliver simply stopped participating because he couldn’t do it.
“His first grade teacher commented that Oliver wasn’t comfortable in his body,” said Annie. “She was right. Something was wrong, but we just didn’t know what it was.”
During the turmoil, a family friend named Jo Gascoigne suggested Annie look into an organization called A Chance To Grow, where Jo once served as a board member. Jo introduced Annie to Julie Neumann, MA/OTR/L, Director of Outpatient Services at A Chance To Grow, and together they discussed Oliver’s symptoms, health history and current predicament. “We discussed several options including modifying his school day, moving to a different first grade classroom, or returning to his former kindergarten class. They recommended Oliver regress back to kindergarten because he wasn’t developmentally a first grader yet,” said Annie.
They explained that Oliver’s wild behavior was caused by a sensory processing disorder, meaning his brain was having trouble receiving and responding to information coming through his senses; specifically his proprioceptive system. His body’s way of seeking sensory input from his environment was causing his behavioral outbursts - he was unaware where his body was in space.
“They told me about MNRI and how integrating his reflexes could build a foundation to overcome his emotional and physical delays, but it would take time,” said Annie.
Time wasn’t on their side. Almost simultaneously, Annie and her husband met with Oliver’s teachers and school officials to discuss their options moving forward. They proposed the regression to kindergarten and were hopeful when his former teacher agreed, and the administrators and counselors gave their consent. The administration asked Annie to keep Oliver at home for a few days while they discussed the details of the transition.
It appeared as though everything would work out, until his kindergarten teacher changed her mind because she felt that Oliver was too smart for kindergarten. She was also concerned about the social-emotional impact that regression could have on Oliver and his peers.
What followed were three difficult weeks in which Annie and her husband fought to keep Oliver in school. “It was a fiasco,” she said, fighting back tears. “He was out of school the whole time and his self-esteem was so low. He thought he was naughty. He was afraid he wouldn’t get to learn subtraction. It just broke my heart.”
Oliver was too smart for kindergarten but not physically or emotionally ready for first grade. What could she do? She did what was best for Oliver - she pulled him out of school and quit her job. She didn’t know what school he’d be at or what grade he’d be in, but she knew she had found A Chance To Grow -- a place that understood what Oliver needed to get better.
“The staff said, it didn’t matter where Oliver was at developmentally, they would work with him,” said Annie. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled Oliver back into kindergarten at a new school, left his old therapists and began coming A Chance To Grow twice weekly. “They were so willing to meet Oliver where he was developmentally and knowledgeable about what he needed to move forward.”
Oliver’s OT, Alyssa, addressed his basic reflexes at first, but quickly noticed he could also benefit from speech therapy to improve his social language skills. “She referred us to Carly, who saw what I saw during the evaluation - poor articulation, no eye contact,” said Annie. “Oliver knew he wanted to sound better, so we immediately began speech therapy to help him better communicate his needs at home and in school.”
Carly works on what triggers his meltdowns, practicing expected behaviors in a safe environment by building and scaffolding his social skills. “He used to be scared to lose and it would trigger a meltdown, but he’s learning how to handle that frustration and manage those social situations,” said Annie.
During Oliver’s sessions, Alyssa demonstrates techniques for Annie so she can work with him at home. They work for 30 minutes almost every night on his grounding reflex, helping him to feel more stable, both physically and emotionally. “Once he knew where his body was in space, he stopped falling down,” she said. “There were a few days when we didn’t do the activities and he became restless and couldn’t sleep. He asked me to do some body work and in no time he was back in bed.”
Throughout the first six months at A Chance To Grow, Annie witnessed many breakthrough moments that proved they were in the right place. “Our little dog Maggie used to be terrified of Oliver, but now she comes up to him and he’s able to hold her. It’s just amazing. You can’t be skeptical when you see progress like that.”
Annie says that one of the best parts is that everything he needs is under one roof. “Everyone is working together to help Oliver, sharing information on all aspects of his treatment plan. It’s just such a different approach from the other places we’ve been. It’s become a safe space for all of us.” Annie has also attends A Chance To Grow workshops, including S.M.A.R.T. training, to further her own understanding of what Oliver is going through and how she can help him continue making progress.
As for school, Oliver completed kindergarten and moved into first grade this past year. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Annie asked about his meltdowns and the teacher had no idea what she was referring to. The teacher thought Annie was talking about a different student!
These days, Oliver is able to do many activities he couldn’t do even a year ago, like riding a scooter without falling, throwing and catching a ball, and hanging on monkey bars - not because he’s practiced these activities, but because they’ve built the foundations to be able to advance his balance and motor skills.
“It’s been a really long journey, but he’s the best he’s ever been,” said Annie, “It’s been absolutely life-changing.”
It can be hard for parents or educators to fully understand the difference between the developmental age of a child and his or her actual age. We have expectations of how children should behave at certain ages, and when these expectations aren’t met, adults can often respond to the situation with the child’s actual age in mind, discounting where the child is developmentally.
The right therapist and approach can make all the difference when it comes to helping children reach their full potential. “If you want to learn how you as a parent can help, then this is the place. The wealth of knowledge and resources they provide are amazing. We love being here and we’re all much happier.”