Is the Toy Industry Listening to Kids With Special Needs?

Enchanted Cupcake Party by Wonder Forge

Earning bling for my princess tiara, landing at the secret rangers headquarters, shooting mini-marshmallows, cuddling up in a wearable puppet, guessing, rhyming, plinking and popping, I was captivated by every minute of the 2012 New York International Toy Fair. The air was alive with excitement as I talked to inventors, tried out products, and listened to manufacturers about the play potential of the best new products to benefit our kids with special needs. For the first time in my 6 years of attending the show, I saw an increased interest from the toy industry in learning how their products can be helpful. Companies were hearing from retailers that parents had successfully used their products to strengthen specific skills related to disabilities.

More than one-fifth of US households with children have at least one child with special needs. About 5.8 million of the nation’s schoolchildren, ages 6 to 21,  are receiving special education services (about 61 percent percent of those students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments) and that doesn’t include preschoolers who are targeted for early intervention.  Several national organizations and popular blogs are getting the word out about effective diagnosis, treatment and recommended techniques and products to build delayed skills.  People are getting it–this is a population that wants, needs and deserves to be taught with the best, most innovative and most importantly, FUN toys to advance their development. Parents of children with special needs want their kids to enjoy the same play experience as their peers and siblings. Their child’s days are often filled with hours of specialized therapy that can and should be augmented with great play using mainstream toys.

Here are some of the companies that are interested, listening, learning and responding:

Roll & Play by ThinkFun

Charlotte Fixler, Communication Manager and Education Specialist at ThinkFun, said “I’ve heard from more speech therapists this year than ever before about how they effectively use our games for speech therapy. Speech therapists are an incredibly creative group.” Once again, ThinkFun has several new games that would adapt well to speech therapy including their first toddler game, “Roll & Play” which includes a large soft block with primary colors on each side. Toss the plush cube and match the color to a card and perform that activity, “Make a happy face” or “Moo like a cow.” Check out ThinkFun’s blog, SmartPlay for inspiration on how games can help those struggling to learn due to disabilities or accidents. Recently a woman wrote, “I want to thank you for creating a game that children love, and one that helps heal a brain that has been so badly damaged.”

Rory O’Connor, inventor Rory’s Story Cubes

Rory O’Connor, the inventor of Gamewright’s “Rory’s Story Cubes,” has heard from so many parents and education professionals working with children and adults to develop language and communication skills, confidence and self-expression and he is still listening. ”When we designed the original Rory’s Story Cubes®, we made them compact enough to fit in a bag or pocket. This was so that your set of Rory’s Story Cubes® would always be to hand when needed. Since launching in 2009, we have been regularly asked by parents and professionals working in the area of special needs, if we would consider making a version of Rory’s Story Cubes® using bigger dice. The main reasons why they want this larger set are:

  • Supporting reduced motor skills. For some players with reduced motor skills it is difficult to pick up small objects.
  • Supporting reduced vision acuity. Some players find small images difficult to read.
  • Avoiding accidental choking hazards. We have learned that for some players it is important that the dice are made bigger to avoid choking.
  • Group Training. Trainers and facilitators working in larger groups would also like bigger cubes to aid group storytelling.

It is important to us that Rory’s Story Cubes can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. One of the most rewarding things for us is hearing feedback from parents and teachers who tell us how Rory’s Story Cubes is allowing self-expression among children and adults who would normally find it difficult to do so.” The result of their feedback is the design of “Rory’s Story Cubes: MAX,”  larger cubes for easier manipulation and recognition. You can weigh in on the subject on Rory’s website here.

Annika Harper introduces new games at Blue Orange

Blue Orange Games contacted me to assess the therapeutic value of their games from a speech and language perspective. I have been blogging about their great games for years with specific tips on how to use them in speech therapy. This year I found an even greater array of games loaded with language learning potential: “Shrimp Cocktail,” “Chef Cuckoo” and “On the Road,” all round card games in a take-along tin (great for the itinerant therapist) which involve vocabulary, description, selling your dish concocted by the chef, and calling out what you see on a road trip! Again, my observations from 15,000 hours of kid work have been born out–great language flows from excellent toys and games. It can’t be contained.

Infantino Right Angle Tummy Triangle

Step2/Infantino has launched the initiative “Everybody Plays,” according to Colette Cosky, Senior Brand Manager at Infantino. “We are committed to diversity in our brand communications. The Everybody Plays campaign encourages all kids together, including children with special needs, because everybody plays. As a company we feel it is our responsibility to show diversity on all levels of our visual communications.  The more we do our part, the greater potential that society as a whole will see inclusiveness as the norm.” At the Toy Fair, I was introduced to specific products that are great for typically developing children but have also served kids with special needs in advancing their development such as “Right Angle Tummy Triangle”, developed with pediatric occupational therapists, to build upper body strength and balance, which contributes to early speech development.

Hape’s language nutrition

Hape Toys knows that language is an important ingredient in learning. Their bright, durable wooden toys are rich in open-ended language play. The recent re-branding of the Educo line reflects their emphasis on educating kids through creative play– “Learning is at the Heart of Our Toys.” In talking to Robin Lehnert, Hape’s Marketing Manager of Hape North America, it is obvious that they look closely at their products that are designed to grow all kids but might have the criteria to help build specific skills for kids with disabilities. Their “Eggspressions,” a set of wooden eggs with different facial expressions on them, is a helpful tool to get kids talking about and naming their emotions while building social language.

The Wonder Forge consistently produces fun preschool board games embedded with language learning and preschool skills. I am in touch with their inventors, president and marketing team, pointing out the developmental learning in their games. Their games cultivate language from “Richard Scarry’s  Busytown Eye Found It! Game” which is a great vocabulary builder to their new products, “Enchanted Cupcake Party” and “Dazzling Princess’ which encourage sequencing, while baking princess cupcakes, earning jewels for answering princess questions, or role play. Kimberley Pierce, WonderForge’s VP of Marketing Communications, shared, “We’ve heard from a number of parents over the years who tell us that our Wonder Forge games have helped their children with special needs develop important skills. We intentionally build in age-appropriate learning in our games. We try to engage kids physically, socially, and creatively, so there are many different ways for children to connect with the content and enjoy the fun.”

Jumbo Bananagrams

Judee Cohen, Public Relations Consultant at Bananagrams, was very interested in hearing about any success stories I had in using their games with kids with special needs. We discussed how many kids on the autism spectrum are hyperlexic,  exhibiting an intense interest in letters, so Bananagrams’ letter games would capitalize on that for learning. This year, their introduction of a larger “Jumbo Bananagrams” and “Zip-It” allows for more active play outside and certainly easier manipulation for kids with special needs.

HABA’s Henri Haba Knight Costume

HABA USA‘s president, Lea Culliton hit on why their products are effective with kids with special needs–durability, multi-levels of play, and the fun factor that joins them with their siblings. “HABA is continuing to learn just how much our products are being embraced by the community of parents with children of special needs.  I’ve been told that the durability of our wooden blocks, game boards, boxes and game pieces and the various levels of play that the HABA assortment offers these families is very strong.  Families comment on how their children with no challenges can easily interact and not get ‘bored’ playing our games with their siblings with special needs.   What may seem as a simple color sorting or stacking game can provide hours of fun just interacting with the pieces of the products themselves.  HABA USA will continue to take that feedback back to Germany to our designers to continue to provide the extended value of play within our assortment.” Some of HABA’s new products that I liked for language learning were their pirate and knight costumes, “Henry Haba” and “Captain Charlie,” as well as their preschool playsets with just enough direction for play but open-ended for the child to lead–”Large Playset on the Farm,” and “Out and About With Tom,” which includes a train and add-on road or track. Several “First Games” for 18 months and up promote early learning too.

I see a powerful synergy growing in the toy industry–between manufacturers and retailers who value specific learning features in their products, parents of kids with special needs pursuing skill-building products and creative educators and therapists sharing what toys work best to advance skills.

As therapists, educators and parents we should collaborate with and support these companies, not only by using their products but providing them with feedback on how their toys and games have been helpful to our kids, so more children can benefit. Send a detailed lesson plan, a success story or a picture to encourage manufacturers to keep our kids in mind when developing and marketing their products to help all kids. After all, isn’t that one of the first concepts we learned as educators, to reinforce behavior we want to continue?

(This post originally appeared on Play on Words)


Sherry Artemenko M.S.CCC-SLP, a speech language pathologist for over 35 years, has  a private practice, Play on Words LLC, popular blog,, and is the founder of the PAL Awards (Play Advances Language) which distinguish the best new toys, games and books that have the DNA to build language skills in children.

Private Practice- Will You be a Survivor?

Money Money Money

Photo by Images_of_Money

“A recent survey by Accenture has shed light on the matter of shrinking numbers of medical private practices and has revealed that especially small private practices are on the decline. The survey also shows that individual practitioners are in declining at the rate of two percent annually and would decline by five percent annually by the year 2013.” (Excerpt from Private Practices Surviving Healthcare Reforms:  Revenue Management.)

The glamour associated with private practice is often shrouded in the gut-busting challenge of juggling business and clinical demands. Dealing with downward payment trends and increasing management of services resulting in the need for more clients.  What is the key to being a private practice survivor?

In a word: REVENUE.

Generating revenue is key to growing your business & managing it is equally essential!

What are four ways that practitioners need to focus on revenue generation?

  1. Identifying your target market
  2. Creating & sharing your brand message
  3. Leveraging your relationships
  4. Jumping into an integrated personal and social media marketing approach and grow your business

What are the five ways we can optimize revenue?

  1. Understand your  costs, pricing and contracting
  2. Identify the key practice metrics you will monitor
  3. Master coverage issues & opportunities
  4. Establish patient payment policies & parameters
  5. Create systems to insure proper billing, documentation & receivable management

You can be a survivor & thrive in the next phase of practice!


Interested in this topic? Lynn Steffes is presenting at ASHA Health Care/Business Institute 2012, taking place April 28-29 in Memphis, Tennessee. Visit the ASHA website for conference information and to register–early bird registration ends March 13 so don’t delay!


Lynn Steffes, PT, DPT is president/consultant of Steffes & Associates, a nationwide rehabilitation consulting service based in WI. Her areas of expertise include marketing and program development, customer service initiatives, managed care contracts and payer relations, and optimal reimbursement and documentation strategies. Steffes is a 1981 graduate of Northwestern University and completed her transitional DPT in December of 2010. In addition to her work as a consultant, she is a frequent speaker at national and state meetings. She is an active member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and serves on the board of directors for the private practice section of APTA.

The Time Has Come for Speech-Language Pathology License Portability

State map of USA

Photo by Kevin Hutchinson

Over the past decade, a chronic shortage of speech-language pathologists has left K-12 schools and healthcare settings in many parts of the United States struggling to provide speech therapy services. The problem has taken a financial toll, driving the cost of services up as institutions spend increasing time and funds searching for speech-language pathologists.

Telepractice offers a promising solution by enabling practitioners to conduct live therapy sessions with clients “anytime, anywhere” using real-time videoconferencing. Telepractice allows practitioners to flexibly “go where the work is” without actually having to physically travel or relocate. Speech-language pathologists who no longer engage in full-time practice but still wish to work part-time, can contract with school districts to provide speech therapy services via telepractice. Ultimately, telepractice addresses a labor problem that impacts many health professions.

This cost-effective approach is being successfully employed by school districts across the United States, reducing costs while providing high-quality therapy. Research indicates that speech therapy delivered through telepractice has comparable quality and outcomes as speech therapy services delivered in-person (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2005; Boisvert, Lang, Andrianopoulos, & Boscardin, 2010; Boswell, 2007; Grogan-Johnson, Alvares, Rowan & Creaghead, 2010; Grogan-Johson et al., 2011).

Although technology has removed geographic constraints, one major barrier remains: time consuming and expensive licensing practices due to a lack of state license portability. While the professional requirements for licensing speech-language pathologists are very similar from state to state, each state has its own licensing process. As a result, speech-language pathologists who want to practice in multiple states must complete applications in each state where a license is sought; submit required documentation; pay licensing fees; and, endure processing times that significantly vary by state. This duplicative process might be warranted if important state-to-state variations in professional requirements for licensing were to exist; however, there is a high degree of consistency in licensing requirements across states.

Though the professional requirements are typically similar, license application processing times and fees vary by state. Some states process applications electronically, while others use a paper-based format. Depending on the state, the processing times for applications range from weeks to months. All states charge licensing application fees (typically $150 and higher) for the initial application, with similar charges for annual license renewal. In some states, licensees must provide fingerprints along with their license application. States do not share fingerprint information; applicants must send fingerprints to the state where the license is requested through an approved process.

The importance of licensure portability was recognized fifteen years ago when the United States Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which urged the healthcare industry to develop multi-state licensure models. Similarly, the US Federal Communications Commission called on state licensing boards to accommodate multi-state licensure for health care practitioners. In 2000, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) instituted the Nurse License Compact (NLC). The NLC allows nurses licensed in a compact state (currently 24 states) to practice in other compact states through a mutual license recognition model. Physicians have labor mobility through an expedited license model.

True license portability for speech-language pathologists is long overdue. License portability would facilitate inter-state practice and thus enable speech-language pathologists who live near state lines to practice in adjacent states where personnel shortages may exist. Greater labor mobility is necessary to serve geographically shifting populations in the US.

It is time to remove the barriers to licensure portability! A national initiative that creates a model for licensure portability for the rehabilitation professions is needed. Licensure portability will enable speech-language pathologists to provide services wherever and whenever needed, thereby unleashing the full potential of telepractice to reduce costs and administrative burdens, increase access to services, broaden career opportunities for speech-language pathologists and improve outcomes for K-12 students and clients in diverse practice settings. A mobile, flexible workforce positioned to use telepractice for inter-state practice could alleviate the chronic shortage of speech-language pathologists.


1. 1. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2005). Speech-Language Pathologists Providing Clinical Services via Telepractice: Position Statement [Position Statement]. Retrieved from
2. 2. Boisvert, M., Lang, R., Andrianopoulos, M., & Boscardin, M. (2010). Telepractice in the assessment and treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 13, 423-432.
3. 3. Boswell, S. (2007, March 6). Ohio grant addresses personnel shortage: Innovative strategies meet short-and long-term goals. The ASHA Leader.
4. 4. Grogan-Johnson, S., Alvares, R., Rowan, L. E., & Creaghead, N. (2010). A pilot study comparing the effectiveness of speech-language intervention provided by telehealth and traditional side-by-side intervention. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 16, 134-139.
5. 5. Grogan-Johnson, S., Gabel, R., Taylor, J., Rowan, L., Alvares, R., & Schenker, J. (2011). A pilot exploration of speech sound disorder intervention delivered by telehealth to school–age children. International Journal of Telerehabilitation, 3(1), 31-42.

(This article was originally published in the International Journal of Telerehabilitation Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 2011, DOI:10.5195/ijt.2011.6079 (


Melissa Jakubowitz, M.A., CCC-SLP is currently the Vice President of SLP Services at PresenceLearning and  has been a speech-language pathologist for more than 20 years, working in schools and  private practice before joining PresenceLearning in January 2010. She is a former president of the California Speech-Language-Hearing Association and has been an active member of ASHA serving on Legislative Council for 12 years and on the ASHA Board of Ethics. 

Got Clinical Questions? Submit Them to ASHA for Systematic Review

question mark

Photo by WingedWolf

Are you wondering whether group treatment or individual treatment will produce better speech and language outcomes for infants with a speech or language disorder? Or whether oral sensory-motor treatment (other than e-stim) will improve functional swallowing outcomes in adults?

Well, you can find the answers to these and many more treatment questions in ASHA’s collection of evidence-based systematic reviews (EBSRs). These EBSRs, which are formal studies of the amount and quality of the published scientific evidence surrounding clinical questions of interest to ASHA members, can be used to inform your treatment decisions.

Want to get involved? ASHA’s National Center for Evidence-Based Practice in Communication Disorders is currently seeking nominations for future reviews.

  • Nominate your clinical question(s) related to intervention and to diagnosis, screening and detection.
  • Questions submitted by March 31 will be considered for next year’s EBSRs.
  • Those submitted after March 31 will be considered for reviews to be conducted in 2014.

Submit your nominations today. Your suggestion could be a topic for a future ASHA EBSR!


Floyd Roye is the project administrator for the treatment outcomes program at ASHA’s National Center for Evidence-Based Practice in Communication Disorders.

Picture Books to Improve Your Toddler’s Speech

10 current fave children's books

Photo by hudsonthego

If your toddler has difficulty producing Ms, Bs, or Ps, otherwise known as bilabials, then check out the following list of children’s books. I have personally selected and reviewed these books because they are enjoyable to read and also contain multiple opportunities to bombard your child with specific sounds. Tips on how to elicit these sounds are also provided. Happy reading!


The “P” Sound

Laden, Nina – Peek a Who

Torres, Cimarusit, Marie – Peek a Moo!

Torres, Cimarusit, Marie – Peek a Pete!

Watt, Fiona – That’s Not My Puppy

Ziefert, Harriet – Max’s Potty


The “B” Sound

Boynton, Sandra – Belly Button Book

Degen, Bruce – Jamberry

Katz, Karen – Where Is Baby’s Belly Button

Watt, Fiona – That’s Not My Bunny

Tulip, Jenny – The Wheels on the Bus

Westcott, Nadine Bernard – Down By the Bay


The “M” Sound

Katz, Karen – Where is Baby’s Mommy

Cousins, Lucy – Maisy Goes to School

Christelow, Eileen – Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

Smith, Sarah – Where’s My Mommy

Wells, Rachel – That’s Not My Monkey


Tips for Eliciting P, B and M Sounds

  • Sit directly opposite your child so he or she can see your face
  • Encourage your child to watch you say /p, b, m/ by placing your fingers flat to your lips while you are saying the sounds
  • Apply a small amount of flavored chapstick to reinforce pressing of the tips together
  • Place a cotton ball on a flat surface and have your child watch you put your lips together and then release a burst of air to produce /p/. The cotton ball will then move across the surface. Encourage your child to do the same.
  • Hum a little and have your child feel the vibrations on your lips and cheeks. Have your child do the same. This works for bilabial /m/.


Kimberly Scanlon, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist practicing in Bergen County, NJ. She provides home based speech therapy for children and adults through her private practice Scanlon Speech Therapy, LLC.  To learn more about Kimberly visit