As the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be a global problem, disruptions to daily life continue to affect many people all over the world. This can be said especially for parents of children with disabilities, who may now look into online alternatives when it comes to therapy for their children, since in-person therapy sessions are not possible due to health risks brought about by the virus.
Therapy may be essential for the development of some children with disabilities. It allows them and their families to develop abilities that are important in everyday life. And two of the most important therapies in this regard are speech language therapy and occupational therapy, according to speech language pathologist Ma. Rowena “Weng” Arao-Ynion.
Ynion is Program Director at Trails Center for Children, Inc., a therapy center specializing in individualized pediatric services, whose mission is “to guide children in discovering their gifts.” She has actively participated in the annual Angels Walk for Autism organized by SM Cares and the Autism Society Philippines (ASP).
“Speech language therapists teach them how to communicate with other people properly and be able to form relationships with them,” Ynion said. “Occupational therapists, on the other hand, teaches them to become better when carrying out simple everyday tasks, so that they can function independently as individuals in all aspects of their lives.”
According to Ynion, these two therapies were typically implemented through in-person sessions. But with the threat posed by COVID-19 on the health and safety of children with disabilities – who typically have compromised immune systems – in-person sessions may not be viable especially in places where there are strict community quarantine protocols.
COVID-19’s impact on the lives of children with disabilities goes beyond making in-person sessions inaccessible and those who were able to establish a routine prior to the pandemic may have had their daily habits disrupted. This was the case for Maebelline Evangelista and her daughter Erin, and Carmela Pedroso and her son Miguel.
“Being thrown out of routine was definitely a big challenge. Getting back on track was difficult at first, but and I’m really thankful that Miguel got back into it eventually,” Pedroso said about Miguel, who has autism.
“The sudden changes in our everyday life in the first few days of the ECQ heightened my daughter’s hyperactivity, because there were less things to do since we couldn’t go out of the house,” said Evangelista of Erin, who has Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder —and who, like Miguel, eventually got back into routine.
For Evangelista, she encourages Erin to engage in physical activity together with the latter’s younger brother Enrico. For Pedroso, she continues to support Miguel’s hobby in painting, not only to keep him preoccupied with something that he loves, but to help him practice as they prepare for an online painting competition later this year.
“Teletherapy” may be the safer option
Ynion, or “Teacher Weng” as she is fondly called, said that teletherapy is currently the best option because parents can still help their children without exposing them to the virus. Therapy centers have to abide by the guidelines set by the Local Government Units specifically on Infection Prevention and Control before accommodating children for in-person sessions.
Online therapy sessions have always been an alternative to in-person sessions, typically availed by those who don’t have easy access to the latter, like those in far-flung areas, according to occupational therapist “Teacher Karen” Navarro, who is also the co-founder of Special Achievers, a non-government organization that helps children with disabilities reach their full potential. Special Achievers has partnered with SM Cares for several of its projects that highlight the abilities and promote the inclusion of PWDs.
Both Evangelista and Pedroso have been availing of online therapy sessions for their children, and they said that so far, doing so has been producing favorable results.
Navarro noted that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapy was not as widely accepted. But now, with social distancing becoming part of the new normal, authorities have started releasing guidelines for it. One example of such is a set of guidelines by the Philippine Academy of Occupational Therapists, Inc. that was published on March 16, 2020.
With more parents now opting for online sessions, Navarro said she personally had to make some adjustments in her way of teaching. “I find myself talking to parents much more now whenever I do online therapy sessions,” Navarro said. “I had to re-calibrate the way I teach so that I am able to teach the child and at the same time provide coaching for parents on how they can help their child learn.”
Speaking on which option is more effective, Navarro said that with in-person therapy, intervention is direct, there are no limitations in terms of how old the patient is, and therapists can use equipment and toys to make each session more productive.
For online therapy, she said that while there is still direct intervention, the focus is more on parent coaching and caregiver training, wherein they are asked to help therapists design activities for the children or do the intervention for their child with the therapist’s guidance. Other than that, online sessions allow therapists to reach even more people unlike before.
Ynion, meanwhile, pointed out that online therapy sessions have variable effects as children have varying needs. But while this is the case, Ynion said that they are working hard to acquire key learnings and establish best practices for parents to follow.
“Right now, we do not know the full extent of how helpful online therapy is for a lot of children with disabilities. However, we are continuously learning as we gather data and insights from parents, support groups and professional organizations like the Philippine Association of Speech Pathologists,” Ynion said.
SM Cares, the Corporate Social Responsibility arm of SM Prime Holdings, have instituted programs that promote social inclusion and in creating a barrier-free environment for PWDs in all its malls. And with the modified and new normal way of doing things brought about by the pandemic, SM feels that societies should continue to have conversations about the welfare of PWDs.
“We hope that by having continuous discussions about this advocacy, we are able to inspire others to move towards inclusion and innovation for PWDs. We will continue to support families, individuals and organizations whose commitment to PWDs align well with ours,” said Engr. Bien Mateo, SVP Operations and SM Cares Director for Program on PWDs.