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Switching on a World of Possibility for Aberdeen Hospital’s Pediatric Patients

Jul 8, 2022

Home 5 News 5 Switching on a World of Possibility for Aberdeen Hospital’s Pediatric Patients

Christopher Fraser (left) is able to activate a bubble machine using a head-mounted switch during one of his first sessions, assisted by occupational therapist Kathryn Wolf (right).

New equipment at the Rehabilitation Services department of the Aberdeen Hospital is opening a world of functionality and communication for its pediatric patients, and causing a flurry of excitement among staff, patients and their families.

“These devices are kind of like a big button that’s used to access any device, except these literally unlock the door to a world of experiences and autonomy,” said Kathryn Wolf, team lead of Occupational Therapy at the Aberdeen Hospital, when asked to describe the devices known as switches. “Switches allow someone with a mobility challenge to access their environment in a way that they otherwise couldn’t. For kids, it allows them to play with toys in a way they haven’t been able to until now.”

Recent donations have provided additional equipment that will expand the use and function of this device. “We previously had one switch but we didn’t have any actual switch access toys or equipment to use for assessment or therapy prior to donations we received from the Neil Squire Society and Aberdeen Health Foundation. Now we have equipment that we can use to mount the switches to a wheelchair or a tabletop, and equipment we can use to link devices to them. One of the devices is called a ‘link switch’ and it allows us to set timers and decide what the button does when it’s pushed, which gives us different possibilities for using devices. We also have a mount that can be adjusted and activated with your head, your hand, or really, any access point on the body that someone has control over.”

For five-year-old Christopher Fraser, who is able to activate a switch using his head with one of the newly acquired mounts, learning how to use the equipment starts with an opportunity to control toys, games and maybe even his own iPad. “He loves music and he loves to watch cartoons. He loves his truck cartoons,” said Janet Brown, Christopher’s grandmother. “This will give him the opportunity to turn his devices on and off himself and he’s catching on very quickly. It’s going to make a big change for us.”

Kathryn Wolf (right), team lead of Occupational Therapy at the Aberdeen Hospital, models two of the new adapted toys that can be operated using switches alongside Kerilyn Kennedy (left) of the Neil Squire Society. The Neil Squire Society donated additional adapted toys to the pediatric occupational therapy program.

In one of Christopher’s first sessions with the switch he was able to operate a bubble machine and Christopher’s family is confident this is just the beginning. Christopher is set to attend school in the fall which will provide even more opportunities for use of the switch. “It’s wonderful and I can’t wait to do more with it. Me myself, being the grandmother, I think maybe he’ll be able to communicate and tell me that he’s hungry, or that he wants to play. Eventually, maybe he’ll get on to that.”

Communication is the end goal, says Wolf, for many children learning how to operate switches. “In a lot of children with these mobility challenges, there are communication challenges as well. The switches allow for control of environment and hopefully, eventually communication. We do the practice now with toys and environmental things with the hope that eventually they will control a communication device with the switch as well.”

Prior to this equipment being available at the Aberdeen Hospital, patients and their families would have had to travel an hour and a half to Halifax to learn and practice using a switch at the IWK Health Centre. Having this equipment here eliminates the travel, delay of service, and financial burden for the Rehabilitation Services’ patients. “It certainly offers more timely service, if we can arrange it in our own department,” says Wolf. “Often some of these children, if they have specialized wheelchairs or other equipment, have had to travel to the IWK for several different reasons already. It can be very burdensome for the families financially, so this helps eliminate at least one of those trips to the city.”

Reducing travel isn’t the only benefit to having these devices locally, though. Once staff at the Aberdeen Hospital are fully trained on the equipment, they will be able to quickly adjust equipment for patients as required and also assist with setting up patients’ own equipment in their homes and schools. It will also help staff make informed recommendations specific to their patients’ needs. “It’s so valuable for us as therapists to be able to access this equipment here for trial before it is recommended or purchased by a family,” explained Wolf. “The cost of switches and switch specific toys can be prohibitive. We want to make sure our recommendations are going to be the most effective.”

“I’m just so excited about all of this,” Wolf said gleefully. “It’s so much fun to be able to play in a different way with kids and to see them interact with something that they couldn’t otherwise. Play can be so therapeutic to children. Accessing toys that make noise, play music, move or make bubbles is a fun and purposeful way to learn to explore and control the environment. For Christopher, just to see him and his grandmother and his mom when he got the bubble machine to activate, it was so exciting. I’m very thankful that we have this equipment now.”