Payton Rodriguez’s progress earns him state honor

by Paul Rignell
Contributing writer

Elk River residents Nathan Bentz and Kara Rodriguez are the proud parents of Payton Rodriguez, a 5-year-old boy who has received the 2012 Client Recognition Award from the Minnesota Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Becca Anwyl presents Payton with a playing card that is printed with a picture of a skunk. He moves to plug his nose as she encourages him to speak about how a “skunk” “stinks.”

Through the strong support of his parents and of Becca Anwyl, a speech-language pathologist at Family Speech & Therapy Services of Elk River, Payton is well on the road to overcoming what has been diagnosed as mixed receptive-expressive language disorder.

Nathan and Kara knew Payton was struggling with speech and behind other children in development when last July, about four months past Payton’s fourth birthday, they received a flyer with information on Family Speech & Therapy Services while watching the Sherburne County Fair parade.

Payton Rodriguez, 5, has a chance to hear himself reciting word during a speech therapy session with pathologist Becca Anwyl at the Family Speech & Therapy Services clinic in Elk River.

In September, within one week of welcoming the birth of their second son, Ryder, Nathan and Kara brought Payton to the Family Speech clinic at 19021 Freeport St. for their first appointment. After one month or so into Payton’s therapy, involving two 30-minute sessions weekly with Becca, Nathan and Kara felt confident in leaving the room so Payton could have one-on-one sessions with his pathologist and without the distraction of his parents.

In January, Family Speech staff selected Payton among all of their young patients as a nominee for the state association’s Client Recognition honor, and Becca, Kara and Nathan learned Payton’s improvement was named the year’s best success story at an annual conference last month in Duluth.

Before his first appointment, Payton’s best way to ask his parents for something was to point at objects. “He wouldn’t say anything,” said Nathan, “but just make a big noise.”

Occasionally Payton would come out with a single word that his parents could understand, and he had learned the phrase, “What’s that?” Nathan said if Payton saw something he wanted, like a glass of water, he wouldn’t say “water” but rather point at the glass and ask, “What’s that?”

Becca and Payton share a fun time.

Now when he’s speaking, and that happens frequently at the clinic, Payton often strings together several words that work in context. “I’m just really amazed that he could go from one up to four-word utterances in such a short amount of time,” Becca told the Star News.

Kara added: “Every once in a while, he’ll fit in a fifth word.”

“He’s excited when he comes for therapy. He works hard,” Becca said. “He’s not a quitter. If there’s something he can’t do, he tries and tries,” Kara added.

At Payton’s current stage of progress in therapy, his session May 2 with Becca featured many activities. To cut out all exterior sound, Becca fit headphones over Payton’s ears, and then she would speak a word into a microphone which he was encouraged to repeat. She is now in the process of helping him to learn and use words that start with two or more consonants working as one, such as “stop,” “skates” and “school.”

They sit or kneel on the carpeted floor in Becca’s office amid foam cutout shapes of butterflies, ladybugs and other animals, and Becca holds a deck of colorful playing cards printed with pictures of skates, skunks and other objects and animals. She works on concepts of big vs. little, all vs. none, top vs. bottom and over vs. under with Payton by, for example, placing a “skunk” card under a foam ladybug, and she directs him in saying the “skunk” is “under” the “ladybug.”

As Becca encourages Payton to say “bounce,” they jump up from the floor, and bounce.

Back at a table, Becca turns on an iPad to find a picture of a dog, and she asks Payton to identify the different parts of a dog’s head or face. He looks at the iPad image, and names a part of the dog’s head, and then he and Becca use dry-erase markers to draw that part of the dog on a whiteboard at the other end of the table. Payton doesn’t just talk about the dog’s nose or ears. Becca encourages him to describe the dog’s “wet, shiny nose” or its “long, floppy ears.”

Few half-hours seem to fly by faster than the 30 minutes of each session for Becca and Payton.

That’s where parents such as Nathan, a professional mechanic, and Kara, who is in school to become a medical assistant, take a greater role. “They have done an amazing job of carrying out all the recommendations I’ve given,” Becca said.

“She gives us examples (of activities from their sessions),” Kara explained, “and we bring them home to work with him.”

“I think they have learned ways to model speech for him,” Becca said of Nathan and Kara. “There’s always language around you. There’s always something to be talking about.”

Payton is on track to enter kindergarten in the fall of 2013. Throughout his year of sessions at the Family Speech clinic, he has also had access to speech therapy among other Early Childhood education programs at the Elk River school district’s Handke Center.

Nathan said all of the work has done wonders for Payton’s confidence and independence, and that he has become a wonderful big brother for baby Ryder. “If he wants to help, he’ll automatically just ask for what he wants to help with,” said Nathan.

“He’s able to communicate with Ryder,” added Kara, who said she and Nathan can understand everything Payton says to Ryder. “He’s telling Ryder things.”