Mary Hilton was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech at age 18 months. It’s a motor disorder in which the brain and mouth have difficulty coordinating in order to make words.
The only sound she said at the time was “Bo.”
Mary began therapy twice a week at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital soon after the diagnosis and continued until she was in the third grade. She remembers that she’d get frustrated and angry because she couldn’t talk. The therapy was difficult, but her therapist, Beth Mee, was patient and calmed her with the games they played.
Today, bright and articulate, with an infectious smile, you’d never know she had a problem with her speech. So grateful, she decided after her therapy ended to give back, with her sister Anna’s help, by making and selling Christmas gift tags. To date, the Visitation Academy senior raised $57,000 for the hospital and will turn over the charitable work to others when she goes away to college in the fall. She recently spoke before a large group at the Glennon Style Fashion Show.
Mary remembers one game they played in therapy containing yellow cards. Before every turn she’d try pronouncing a word. Though she progressed remarkably, until two years ago she had a hard time with two words — “function” and “Sydney.” With the help of her mom and sister, using techniques learned from the therapy, she succeeded in saying the words.
She credits her parents with instilling the importance of giving back to others. “Each year more people have gotten involved and it kept growing,” Mary said of the fundraising.
SSM Health Cardinal Glennon is “a really amazing hospital in all they do for kids,” she said. She is so grateful, Mary said, because if her condition hadn’t been diagnosed and she hadn’t received therapy she wouldn’t be able to talk.
She remembers a ceremony in which she presented a check to purchase iPads for the speech department, which were used in assisting other children in therapy. A young boy was in the waiting room watching. When he was told why Mary was grateful, he was thrilled to see of the example of someone who made it through speech therapy successfully.
Fellow Visitation seniors who help with the fundraising have enjoyed it. “It’s really touching to hear the stories and how it (the funds) affects the community,” Annie Whiting said. Andrea Morales agreed, adding that “it was really amazing that Mary was able to start this when she was 8 years old.”
Mary’s speech therapist, Mee, said “the influence she’s had on all these other young ladies is really impressive.” The funds have gone to speech therapy, the dental clinic and other programs of the hospital.
Mee said the therapy starts with simple motor movements first, such as working on vowels and building in complexity. Children with apraxia are seen a few times a week and have homework every night. Mee noted that Mary’s parents were especially diligent.
Repetition and practice are the key, Mee said, and it helps to have a variety of games and tools to use to maintain the child’s attention.
Loretta Laurent, team lead for physical, occupational and speech therapy at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, said the speech therapist has to be creative. “You can’t just pull out Candyland (the game) every time,” Laurent said. “You have to make it novel and interesting every time the child comes. So if a kid is coming two or three times a week, that’s two or three times a week you have to come up with something new. We’re responsible for bringing the fun but still achieving the goal of improvement.”