Summer is an energetic 4-year-old with bright blue eyes and an infectious smile. She is passionate about learning and excited to try new things.
But Summer's mother worried about the girl's systematic delays in some areas of cognitive growth. Summer's preschool teachers wondered if she might be struggling with a developmental disability and suggested she be tested.
The results seemed to indicate that Summer might be, to some degree, autistic. Her mother was encouraged to consider early intervention therapies to help her daughter catch up to her peers in areas where the little girl was showing weakness.
Summer was brought to Kids First Therapy Center in Spring Hill. After being evaluated, Summer was put on a regular schedule of occupational, physical, and speech therapies to help her meet important milestones.
Owner Gloria Zapata, RPT, who is also a physical therapist, works with Summer twice weekly, building on various skills that Summer had difficulty mastering. "In three months she has come a long way," said Zapata, who works with the girl's endurance and muscle tone on a treadmill, a climbing stairs apparatus and a trampoline
In the PT (physical therapy) room, a treadmill customized to fit a child is used. A set of climbing stairs with rails rests against a wall with a magnetic board. The patient is encouraged to climb the steps, sometimes while holding a magnetic object, which tests the child's ability to compensate for one-handed climbing while focusing on an object.
As Summer ascends and descends the steps, Zapata watches carefully to see the child's ability to solve problems and trust her body. "Summer is more hesitant coming down," she said. "But that has improved dramatically."
By adding an object to hold, Zapata breaks up the pattern. The object allows Summer to use different muscles to help adjust her coordination and strength to compensate for only having one hand on the rail.
Summer becomes hesitant when confronted with situations she isn't sure of, explained Zapata. Yet with gentle encouragement and adequate time to build rapport, Summer has begun to trust her therapist and herself. She now can complete new tasks.
Another young patient, Ariella Espinal, 8 months, also attends weekly appointments at Kid's First for physical therapy. Her grandmother, Michelle Young, said Ariella has trouble with muscle tone and works with physical therapist, Neri Relampagos, RPT, for 30-minute sessions once a week.
Relampagos, who has been a therapist for more than 30 years, said Ariella is doing well. She works with the baby on a swing to help her build her core. Sessions run about 30 minutes, she said, because that is about all a baby can tolerate.
Ariella's progress has been dramatic. Her muscles are stronger, allowing her to hold her head erect rather than slumped a bit to the side.
According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NDCCD), early intervention is one of the most important steps a parent can take when a child is diagnosed with a developmental delay.
"Early intervention services can help infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays to learn many key skills and catch up in their development."
A developmental delay is a broad term that means a child is delayed in some area of his or her development. They might include:
? Cognitive development
? Physical development, including vision or hearing
? Communication development
? Social or emotional development
? Adaptive development
Each state determines its own definition of delayed development, and services are based on their own criteria. But it is a standard belief that early intervention for children diagnosed with even significant delays can make a difference in how the child progresses into adulthood.
And that is the premise behind Kids First Therapy Center. Zapata opened her clinic 12 years ago in Port Richey and branched into Spring Hill seven years ago. The clinic focus strictly on pediatrics - which is a big deal, she said, because not many do.
There is a lot more money in adult therapies, she added. Yet her staff of 16 therapists chooses to work with children because that is what they most want to do.
Like Rebecka Perry, COTA, an occupational therapist at Kids First who wanted specifically to work with children. "I love seeing their progress," she said. "It's so rewarding to see them do things they couldn't do before."
Occupational therapy focuses on fine motor and cognitive growth to help patients succeed in their "occupation," Perry said. "A child's occupation is to play and be a student," she explained. Therefore, she works with task building behaviors like putting objects into a container or manipulating a peg puzzle, for instance. Children with autism or sensory disorders often are delayed in such areas.
Kid First Therapy Center is separated into speech, occupational and physical therapy rooms that are equipped with bounties of resources to improve performance in those areas. Often patients visit one or more therapists that work interchangeably. For instance, Summer transitions from physical to occupational to speech therapies twice a week.
The ST (speech therapy) and OT (occupational therapy) rooms are geared toward those specific behaviors. For instance, Lara Dedmon, a licensed speech/language pathologist, works on improving fine motor skills with toys that help transition a child with speech impediments or nonverbal children to work with sounds.
Kids First Therapy works much like a family, with therapists who have been with Zapata for a long time. "We don't have a big turnover here," she said.
Working with adults is more lucrative, Zapata said. "But I wanted to serve the children. There really wasn't anything around here and I wanted to give them that."
Kids First Therapy is at 236 Mariner Blvd. in Spring Hill. The office can be reached at (352) 683-2120.