Circle of Healing

Five year old Andrew Brimm has struggled to communicate for much of his short life.

His mum Gennell (who is a mother of four) picked up on his problems early in the piece with her gut feeling validated by Playgroup workers and Mulungu’s (the local Aboriginal Medical Service) Family Support Worker who also has a child with hearing difficulties.

The Family Support Worker recommended Gennell take Andrew for some speech therapy sessions at the local hospital but Andrew wasn’t comfortable in that environment.

She then organised another referral and that’s when CheckUP funded speech therapist Laura Nelson came into Andrew and his mum’s life.

Andrew took to Laura and she has been working with him for around two years (he is now halfway through his prep year).

‘I’ve known Gennell for many years and I first engaged with her professionally through our mobile playgroup which would visit her at her house,’ explained the Family Support Worker.

‘I encouraged her to come to Mulungu and get support for Andrew’s hearing issues. She brought Andrew in for a child health check and got a referral for a speech therapist to have a look at him.’

He was first referred to Mareeba Hospital but it didn’t work out.

She then supported Gennell to try again – with CheckUP funded speech therapist Laura Nelson.

Laura had already met the family when Andrew attended Mulungu’s special developmental playgroup.

She started working with him just before he started kindy.

‘His language has improved,’ said Laura, ‘but almost as important is that the people that are around him - his kindy teachers, his prep teachers, are aware that there’s an underlying language problem rather than thinking him shy, or that he’s just not trying. So they are fully informed and have strategies to help him right from the beginning. They’ve then made sure he’s engaged in the education process right from the start.’

Along with her sessions with Andrew, Laura works closely with Gennell and Andrew’s teachers.

‘It creates a nice cycle, because the teachers can put the right things in place, and Andrew continues to improve and everyone’s happy.’

‘He went from a super shy boy to someone who will join in songs – sometimes singing, sometimes in sign.’ said Gennell.

‘The progress has been big, big.’

‘Before, most of the people he talked to couldn’t understand him but now, sometimes he’ll use a bit of sign, but now he’s bringing out his words.’

‘The big sisters help him too, Laura will send home some sheets and they will do it with him, I’ll do it with him, we’ll all do it, we are all learning sign, my youngest girl Gracie is learning it all school – we all learn at the same time.’

‘He was really shy, maybe because he couldn’t express himself, but now, can’t stop him now.’

Gennell has been so inspired by her son’s progress she is considering getting specialist Teacher Aide qualifications so she can assist kids like Andrew in class.

The Mulungu Family Support Worker, both as an old friend of Gennell and professionally charged to look after families, is supportive of this plan.

‘Now all four kids are in school, Gennell can start thinking about her own life.’

 ‘Andrew’s journey has been so positive’ she said.

‘He’s confident, he’s talking and he looks you in the face and his language has progressed really well.’

The fourth link is Andrew’s circle of healing is his dedicated and caring Prep teacher Sandi Stewart- Troncone. A teacher for 20 years, Sandi has a range of students with differing levels of ability in her class, and said Andrew’s progress demonstrates the value of early intervention.

‘Having Andrew in Laura’s program before he started Prep meant she could let me know exactly where he was at and what I needed to do to help him,’ Sandi said.

‘I can work with him, I’ve got the parents on board – she’s done the work for us!

‘Laura knew more about Gennell than I did and was able to let me know that if I sent stuff home for her to do she would do it – having that knowledge was just fabulous.’

Being ahead of the game is critical for a child’s healthy development said Sandi.

‘Usually what we see is a quiet or shy kid come into class. A teacher may wait until 3rd term before sending them to the school based Speech Therapist for assessment, putting their lack of communication down to being in a new environment, or just being shy. If there is a problem, you are already six months in, the child will start Grade 1 the following year, and you are just starting to get the ball rolling.’

 ‘This is the bottom line and why it’s so important to get help early: in Prep we do all the letter sounds, so if they can’t say it, they can’t spell it, if they can’t spell it, they can’t read it and if they can’t read it, they are illiterate. It’s that simple.’

Andrew is one of the lucky ones but the support services, while excellent, are capped.

The current rules enable Andrew to have up to 10 Medicare funded allied health therapy sessions per calendar year.  When his annual quota of sessions with Laura finish Andrew must rely on the stretched resources of the school speech therapist, the fifth and final link in his circle, who offers assessment and a follow up school based program.

‘With a wealth of studies documenting the evidence between speech, hearing and learning difficulties leading to social, emotional and academic difficulties, there are clear arguments in favour of funding speech therapy services for kids like Andrew,’ said Laura.

‘Not surprisingly a huge number of children engaged in the judicial system also have diagnosed, and undiagnosed, communication difficulties.’

‘We need early intervention, and we need ongoing support to ensure these kids thrive.’

Fortunately for Andrew, he is ahead of the game – thanks to people like Gennell, Kienwyn, Sandi and Laura, and the funding from CheckUP that makes the support possible.


Top: L-R Tenean, Andrew and Gennell Brimm

Middle: L-R Mulungu Family Support Worker and Laura Nelson

Bottom: Sandi Stewart-Troncone