READING — When 6-year-old Zion Lowe jumps off the District 518 van each weekday after attending first grade at Prairie Elementary, he fairly bubbles with news.
“He likes school,” affirmed Kathy Solt, Zion’s grandmother and guardian.
“He’s a busy boy, and he arrives home with a lot of chatter and is always excited to show us what’s in his book bag.”
That’s a major change from a few years ago when Zion, who has Down syndrome, was far less verbally communicative.
“It was frustrating when we couldn’t figure out what he wanted or needed,” said Solt, who shares her home in Reading with Zion, her husband Dale and Zion’s big sister Jorgia, a high school sophomore.
“Zion would gesture, point or make noises when trying to communicate, and he couldn’t articulate Jorgia’s name; he made a kind of guttural sound instead.”
But after roughly three years of weekly speech therapy, Zion’s verbal abilities have blossomed.
“He can say ‘Jorgia’ now, and he does a lot more speaking at home,” said Solt. “We can carry on a conversation with him — he can put two or three words together — and he can let us know what he wants, so that’s encouraging.”
Zion’s first-grade classroom teacher at Prairie is Kesia Escalante and his special needs teacher is Erin Ahrens. At school, Zion employs a Tobii Dynavox device to enhance his communication skills with both instructors and classmates.
“It’s like a small tablet that he can use to punch things to make a sentence, and he uses it during their morning meeting time,” explained Solt. “It allows him to participate in that way.”
Once a week, Zion makes the short trip back into Worthington to attend an after-school speech therapy session at Sanford Worthington Medical Center with Sanford speech therapist Kayla White.
Initially, the Solts took Zion each week to Sanford Pediatric Therapy Services in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he worked with speech therapist Peggy Bortnem. He still sees Bortnem once a month, but the Solts are grateful that White is available to perform the same types of therapy with Zion much closer to home.
“Less travel makes it a lot easier,” said Solt. “Having speech therapy services like that in Worthington is nice because it’s so much more convenient.”
Both White and Bortnem spent time helping Zion move through a progression of speech therapy tasks involving whistles, bubbles and a stick that allowed him to practice biting.
“Most Down syndrome kids have longer tongues, and those practices help them learn not to extend their tongues all the time but to hold them back and in place to enable better speech,” explained Solt.
Today, Zion can say the ABCs and count aloud numbers one through 10, among other speech achievements.
“He still uses different gestures for some things, like putting his hand to his mouth to indicate he wants a drink,” said Solt.
“But there are so many additional things he says now,” she continued. “The speech therapy has been an important part of his developing better communication skills.”
The Solts are grateful for the professional speech therapy and intervention from which Zion has benefited.
“Both Kayla and Peggy have been good for Zion,” affirmed Solt. “They keep the progress moving forward and read each other’s notes so they know where to go.”
Every step to improve Zion’s communication abilities makes life a little easier, she said.
“This isn’t what we expected to be doing in our retirement years, but we do what we can,” said Solt optimistically. “It takes a village to accomplish almost anything.”