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OU College of Allied Health Speech-Language Programming Adapts to COVID-19 Restrictions While Continuing to Reach Children on Autism Spectrum

Published: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

iLEAP (Interprofessional Language, Enrichment and Pre-Kindergarten Program), a program of the John W. Keys Speech and Hearing Center at the University of Oklahoma College of Allied Health, has adapted processes in order to continue to reach Children on Autism Spectrum during times of COVID.

iLEAP has long served children with a variety of developmental needs related to speech, language and hearing. The program also addresses the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder and the social, learning and behavioral challenges associated with that diagnosis. Guided by speech-language pathology professionals, the small-group approach enhances learning for children in various developmental stages.

With restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, the center is not fully operational in person, but clinicians were quick to adapt.

“We’re really pleased that we can offer the iLEAP program this summer on a virtual platform so that at least some of our children and families are still benefitting from focus on communication skills,” said Mona Ryan, M.A., CCC-SLP, ASHA Fellow, clinical associate professor and Speech-Language Pathology clinical coordinator. “Our learning programs offer a language-rich pre-kindergarten experience that prepares children for inclusion in regular education and developmental classroom experiences.”

Jessica Lathem, M.A., CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist, and iLEAP co-director, said the program, though not new, has evolved to meet the growing needs of a population whose educational concerns may be problematic. Since June, the virtual learning program has used an online conferencing tool.

“We would love to grow class size and participation, but some parents are still a little unsure of teleconferencing or aren’t sure how it will work for speech therapy,” she said. “We’re passionate about helping children by whatever means we can, and while we are unable to meet in person this summer, we feel this online platform has given us a new way to reach out to parents and children to be able to explore what is possible, to see what we can do for their children’s speech and language development.”

John W. Keys has had a preschool program since the 1950s, with a focus on children with hearing impairment. In the 1990s, the preschool became the Language Preschool Program. The program was renamed Language Enrichment and Pre-Kindergarten Success (LEAPS) program in 1998, with an early intervention program for younger children and their parents called Helping Our Parents Succeed (HOPS).

After moving into the newly built College of Allied Health building in 2010, the preschool continued to grow. In 2014, the program became the Interprofessional Language Enrichment and Pre-Kindergarten Program (iLEAP) with the addition of interprofessional components. The program receives financial assistance and support from the United Way of Central Oklahoma, a partner agency of the John W. Keys Speech and Hearing Center.

Additionally, the iLEAP program is supported by the OU College of Allied Health and private donations, including support from families of children who have graduated from iLEAP.

“What’s new and different about iLEAP, is that the learning opportunity now is more focused, with two classes specifically available to children on the autism spectrum and those who have significant communication needs,” Lathem said. “We continually heard from parents whose children had nowhere else to go because they were unable to function in a traditional preschool setting where staff members were not equipped to work with such a wide range of developmental and/or behavioral concerns. We specialize in providing services that specifically address the challenges faced by this unique population. Programming is available as a direct response to parents who found no other options where their children could really learn effectively.”

Additionally, the iLEAP population consists of typically developing peer models, who are added to the program when available. One additional class is in place for children with less significant communication disorders, such as articulation or phonological disorders, receptive and/or expressive language disorders, childhood apraxia of speech, hearing impairment, among others.

Beth Lane, M.A., CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist and co-director of iLEAP, said, “It’s an optimal learning environment for children who otherwise may not receive individualized attention, which is particularly important to speech and language.” Lane has extensive background teaching children on the autism spectrum and brings this depth of expertise to the iLEAP program. The half-day program is for children ages 2½ to 5 years, and limits class size to preserve a low child-to-teacher ratio. The age at which children are eligible to participate was recently lowered in order to capitalize on an important developmental window, a best practice in early intervention.

“These classes are a nice transition that move children toward a traditional five-day preschool experience at a comfortable pace,” Lane said. She explained that the transition may ease the anxiety of an abrupt change to a longer week with more time spent in a classroom setting.

“Socialization is also a learned skill, which can present obstacles for children with special needs. Children who have relied solely on Mom or Dad to meet every need are often ill-equipped to communicate effectively. It’s beneficial for many children to continue in the program until age 5. With this foundation, they are better prepared for inclusion into other school programs on a five-day weekly schedule.”

The programs of the John W. Keys Speech and Hearing Center also contribute to the professional development of speech-language pathology graduate interns and undergraduate students. “The individually tailored learning experience we offer is a training program for graduate students, providing a means to meet requirements toward their master’s degrees, as well as learning opportunities for our seniors in our undergraduate Communication Sciences and Disorders program,” said Lathem.

Additionally, the clinic facilitates more comprehensive learning through collaboration with other OU Health Sciences Center entities and resources, including the OU College of Dentistry, and programs in Nutritional Sciences and Audiology. Presentations may include demonstrations that teach how to brush teeth or make healthy snacks.

Future plans for the iLEAP preschool program include creation of a sensory room to address sensory needs of children with ASD or sensory processing delays. The program would gladly accept donations for this sensory room or for scholarships to assist families with tuition expenses.

With many questions unanswered with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing impact on every area of academic, medical and social structure, Lathem acknowledged the changes in how services are provided.

“We’re dealing with the same challenges faced by other educational environments, and we’ll move forward as the campus moves forward, taking a conservative approach throughout the summer.”

For more information about the programs and services of the John W. Keys Speech and Hearing Center, call (405) 271-2866, or email Mona Ryan, M.A., CCC-SLP,