“She had the biggest turnaround of any of the kids I’ve seen"

Tessa Van Snellenberg

A Determined Little Girl Learns to Crawl, Walk, and Dance

Tessa Van Snellenberg is competing with her older brother, Charlie, to demonstrate who can jump higher and run faster. Charlie is two years older and almost a foot taller, so it will never be a fair competition, but the fact that Tessa can jump and run is a remarkable feat on its own.

When Tessa was six months old, her parents, Elizabeth and Mike, noticed that she resisted putting weight on her feet when placed in a standing position. When her pediatrician tested for her deep tendon reflexes, there was initially no response, indicating possible damage to motor nerve control by the brain. At nine months, Tessa wasn’t rolling over or sitting up and still had no diagnosis. Her dad remembers worrying, “We didn’t know if she would live with us for the rest of her life. Will she walk in her life? Does this get better?”

The fact that Tessa’s development seemed to be ‘stuck’ motivated her parents to seek further treatment. During a visit to Seattle Children’s Hospital, Tessa’s parents were referred to Boyer Children’s Clinic, who began providing physical therapy for Tessa at her home.

“When we first started, Tessa would play with me, but as soon as we started physical therapy she would get extremely frustrated – lots of screaming and crying and asking to go to mom,” says Amy Forbes, a Physical Therapist at Boyer for six years. Though Tessa’s motor development was initially slow to improve, Tessa soon responded to Amy’s technique as they worked on rolling and getting into and out of sitting positions.

Amy worked with Tessa’s parents to teach them how to encourage Tessa’s movements at home. Tessa’s older brother, Charlie, was also involved in the physical therapy activities. He served as motivation for Tessa, especially at times when certain movements overwhelmed or scared her.

After nine months of physical therapy, Tessa was making incredible progress and was already pulling herself into a standing position. However, long after most children have said their first words, Tessa still wasn't talking much. “She used some sign (language) initially, but she didn’t have any words when we started,” says Amy Barnes, a Special Education Teacher at Boyer for seven years. After evaluating her skills, Amy recommended that Tessa begin receiving educational services to help with her cognitive, social, and language development.

“I wanted to help Tessa develop her perceptual skills, by helping her place different shapes into puzzles,“ says Amy. “We worked on games that uncover patterns and sequences to aid her memorization, recall, and reasoning skills as well.”

“At first she did not have many play skills… she also had a lot of screaming behaviors and pinching,” Amy continues. Tessa would get frustrated easily, bursting into a tantrum several times a day.”

When evaluating Tessa’s progress, Boyer found that Tessa showed signs of receptive and expressive speech delay and recommended that she attend speech therapy. Judy Dittmer, a Speech-Language Pathologist at Boyer for 22 years, began working with Tessa to put words together to form longer sentences and pronouncing words with clarity. Soon Tessa was repeating what she heard, formulating her own sentences, and starting to read aloud to her parents.

Before her second birthday, Tessa transitioned from in-home treatment to attending early childhood special education classes at Boyer’s preschool. Tessa thrived in class with her peers, and the preschool environment helped her develop social learning skills such as cooperation and turn-taking. During class she continued to receive physical and speech therapy, and Tessa’s team would meet weekly so that their strategies were modified to compliment Tessa’s successes.

“She had the biggest turnaround of any of the kids I’ve seen…by the time Tessa left we weren’t worried at all,” says Amy Forbes. “Now she’s running and jumping and doing somersaults,” her mother shares with pride. By the time Tessa graduated from Boyer at age three, she tested at typical developmental limits in all areas. Today she attends a community preschool with typically-developing peers, where her favorite activity is dance.

“She’s still a bit of a drama queen,” says Elizabeth, as she smiles at her daughter. Tessa and her family remain determined to beat the odds in all areas of her development. Her mom can now step out of class without provoking a tantrum and Tessa is better able to communicate with her family. Thanks to her parents’ commitment to seek help for Tessa early, during the most critical time in her development, Boyer was able to provide her with the opportunity for a running start in life. Though many milestones were hard-won for Tessa, she is now charging ahead, and no longer falling behind.

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