Jessica Larkin Shepherd was wrapping up her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Nebraska when her grandmother had a stroke. Shepherd rushed to her bedside and supported the ailing woman as she recovered, to the point that Shepherd was able to witness her grandma’s in-home speech therapy sessions as she learned how to talk, eat, and swallow again. Shepherd was fascinated. She knew then that speech therapy would become her calling, but she was interested in focusing on the demographic that was first learning how to speak: kiddos.
Good thing, too; when she opened her first pediatric speech therapy clinic in Colorado in 2012, there was a shortage of qualified therapists. (There aren’t a lot of graduate programs in the field in the Centennial State, and the ones that do exist—at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Northern Colorado—are fairly small.) In fact, the 10 percent of children with a communication disorder in the state were waiting six to nine months on average to even get an appointment.
Five years later, Shepherd has pushed that wait time way down, thanks to her three clinics in Centennial, Aurora, and, as of this past month, Littleton. Part of that comes from the fact that her practice, the straightforwardly named Pediatric Speech Therapy Associates (PSTA), has become the state’s largest provider of teletherapy, offering more than 350 sessions per week to kids whose families can’t make the drive from rural locales to the Denver metro area.
Most of the referrals PSTA receives from local doctors deal with, well, speech therapy: preschoolers who can’t sound out certain letters, children with stuttering problems, or tots plagued by chronic ear infections who couldn’t hear well enough to learn developmental skills.
But not every child Shepherd and her approximately 20 colleagues sees is having trouble with her R’s and L’s. Some need physical therapy (if they’re not crawling or walking on time) or occupational therapy—which deals with everything from fine motor skills to feeling comfortable in a variety of everyday situations—or even feeding therapy. “We get a lot who come for multiple therapies,” Shepherd says. “We pride ourselves on treating the whole child and working really closely with a family so we’re addressing all of their concerns.”
Shepherd recommends that kids come in by age three or four if they’re struggling with multiple or difficult sounds and by five if they’re having issues with writing, other fine motor skills, or eating healthy foods. “In first grade, second grade, kids are going to start making fun of those kids who sound different,” Shepherd says. “With feeding, I worry about nutrition and growth; we’ve got to teach those kiddos to accept a bigger variety of foods so that they feel well and are growing and their brains are developing appropriately.”
Shepherd’s new clinic in Littleton will further expand PSTA’s ability to deal with these problems, both through one-on-one interactions and groups that prepare kids for kindergarten, help with handwriting, and improve social skills. (Those began meeting this week.) “We had a family who called recently from Conifer that used to drive to our Centennial location,” she says. “When they heard we were opening a Littleton location, they literally jumped for joy—now they only have to drive 15 minutes versus 45 minutes.”