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Field Talk is a monthly blog post sharing the voices of early childhood providers who serve or have served military families of young children with disabilities (birth to 5 years old).  We hope you find it to be educational, personable, and encouraging.

This month we welcome Lana Sperry, M.A., CCC-SLP.  Lana works as a speech-language pathologist in Clarksville, TN.  The names within this interview have been changed and their stories used with permission.  This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Describe your current role.

I am a speech-language pathologist in a civilian hospital outpatient rehabilitation setting. In the clinic I see pediatric clients, where I am the sole provider of swallowing and feeding therapy for infants and children. I also provide augmentative communication device training, as well as speech and language therapy. Finally, I see adult and geriatric populations for whom provide swallowing, speech, language, voice, and cognitive therapy.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

I love helping people. It’s an amazing feeling to see the smiles on people’s faces when they have accomplished a goal.

Tell us about experiences you have had working with military families.

In 2002, following graduate school, I moved to Clarksville, TN which is located very near Fort Campbell, KY. This area serves a large military population, and it was in in Clarksville that I began working with families in the military.

The ages and diagnoses of individuals I have seen have ranged from infants to teens. These children have had diagnoses including: autism, spina bifida, developmental delays, Down syndrome, feeding difficulties, and speech-articulation impairments. I have learned that children with the same diagnosis can be very different.

Fresh out of graduate school, I worked at a clinic that provided home health services to the birth to 3-year population. I vividly recall a 2 year old named ‘Sam,’ whose parents were young and the father was in the military. Sam was unable to communicate verbally. He would instead take adults to a desired object or bring an object to them. When upset he would escalate quickly and have difficulty calming himself. It was while working with Sam that I suspected he had autism. This was my first experience sharing my suspicions with parents. I referred them for further testing and this diagnosis was confirmed. Luckily the parents took the news well. It was important for them to remember that a diagnosis did not change their child. In therapy ‘Sam’ was able to use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to communicate. He was successful in using this system to request items such as toys and food. The family was reassigned and moved before we could try using an augmentative communication device with Sam. I will always remember ‘Sam’ as he was my first hands-on experience with a child with autism.

Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.

A few years ago I worked with a young child named Jessa. She had spina bifida, which resulted in her being paralyzed from the waist down. She was a cute little blonde who pushed herself around the clinic in a tiny wheelchair. Her communication skills were extremely limited due to severe oral and speech apraxia. She could produce a few basic vowels and would use these with appropriate voice inflection. A sentence such as “Look at that ball” might sound like “Oo aa aa ah.”

I worked with Jessa 3 days a week, which allowed me to become close to her as well as her family. Progress was slow but present. We established that she could produce consonants such as “b” in “ball,” but she had to separate the word “buh – all”. Toward the end of her therapy, and prior to moving, Jessa could use a variety of word approximations involving many different consonants. When the family was preparing to move, the mom expressed sadness in having to leave the area and find a new speech therapist. It was very rewarding to have helped Jessa and to have given the parents a chance to see her progress. It is rewarding to have parents tell me that they wish they could take me with them to continue to treat their child. While I am pleased that parents have seen their child make progress, I am sad to say good-bye to them.

Describe a challenging experience working with military families.

Military families often move around a great deal which means frequent changes in medical and therapeutic providers. Therefore, it can be challenging to access therapy notes from former speech, physical, and occupational providers. Also, a child’s plan of care may not be met when a child is in my care for only a short amount of time due to military assignments.

When one works with families for months or years there is a certain “sense of ownership” over the child’s intervention plan and their speech-language progress. So when a family has to leave and start working with another therapist, I feel a sense of loss. I do, however try to be available for the new therapist to answer questions.

Also, as a civilian, I am not completely familiar with military terminology. This can be challenging when communicating with families. It is helpful to have some understanding of military acronyms.

From your experience, how are military families similar and different from other types of families?

Military families are generally in the area for shorter time periods than civilian families. I find that the parents, especially mothers, of children with disabilities are strong advocates for their children. In my experience, military mothers are often more assertive due to the need to fight for services for their child. In some ways, I adjust my practice when caring for a child in a military family. For example, if I know in advance that a family will only be living in the area for a short amount of time, I modify my plan of care to be more aggressive in an effort to address more targets during the family’s time here. However, in many ways I treat military families the same as civilian families.

As providers, how can we support military parents who are deployed or away frequently due to trainings/school?  

Communication between providers and families is essential. After every session I summarize the goals addressed in that session and the child’s performance on each goal. I send this home with the hope that it will help keep the caregiver informed of the child’s progress even when they cannot attend sessions.

I try to understand the needs of each military family. If a family notifies me of upcoming travel or a deployment, and there is the need for the child to miss some appointments, I do my best to reserve availability on my schedule. For example, I am working with a child whose extended family is from another country. The mother has taken the children to visit family for the summer while the father is deployed. In this case, I did not discharge the child, but instead put his chart on “hold,” and when the child returns, I will re-evaluate him.

Describe a specific stressor that military families with whom you have worked have shared or experienced.

Military families who have children with disabilities have expressed stress when they have to re-establish services for their children in new towns. It can be difficult to move to a new city and try to find quality service providers. I generally try to do an Internet search or ask other SLPs to recommend providers. I also like to prepare a detailed letter including the child’s goals, test scores, and progress for the parent to give to the next therapist. This can help the new therapist initiate services.

What “insider” tips or advice do you have for service providers working with military families who have young children with disabilities?

Be open to and accepting of different cultures and ways of life. It is our place to listen to the parents and provide the best care possible to their children.

If you could change or improve one thing for military families with young children with disabilities, what would it be?

It would be nice if the military provided families with a list of physicians and service providers located near each military base.

What types of resources have you sought out to feel more confident and competent at meeting the specific needs of military families? (e.g., trainings, blog posts, organizations, etc.)

I have reached out to the parents of the children with whom I work. They are generally happy to explain the hierarchy of the military, the acronyms, the procedures, etc.