Grandview Children’s Centre isn’t just a nice-to-have in Durham Region — it’s an incredibly important facility committed to changing the lives of tens of thousands of children with special needs. With a major move on the horizon, the work being done at Grandview isn’t slowing down — they’re forging ahead in terms of technology, research and innovation benefiting families across Eastern Ontario.
Marilyn Robitaille knew something wasn’t quite right when her two-year-old son, Orion, wasn’t talking. Speech delays in children aren’t uncommon, and every child learns at his or her own pace. Still, several developmental authorities say 24-month-olds should be able to join two words together (“more milk”) and learn and use one or more new words each week. The Oshawa, Ont.-based mother knew her son wasn’t meeting these milestones, and her intuition told her to seek help. “We started at Grandview for speech therapy — first group therapy and then individual. Orion also ended up being referred to occupational therapy and physiotherapy because of gross-motor and fine-motor skills,” says Robitaille. “We were told he had a speech and motor disorder — called “apraxia” — when he was three.” (Apraxia is a disorder that makes it hard for kids to speak — they understand language and know what they want to say but can’t carry out the movements for speech.) Then, when Orion was four, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The therapists at Grandview kicked Orion’s care into high gear and introduced augmentative and alternative communication devices. “Our speech therapist began with a laminated sheet and tried to get Orion to point to images showing what he wanted to communicate,” she says. (This was called the “picture exchange communication system.”) “But Orion wanted nothing to do with the laminated sheet. He loved tablets, so we decided to try an iPad as a communication device,” Robitaille explains, adding she credits their speech therapist, who was instrumental in showing the family how to successfully communicate with it. “We started just after Orion turned three and within a couple months, he was using it to ask for food, people and toys. The first time he used the iPad effectively was to ask for a banana, and I cried. I have a tattoo of a banana to commemorate it.” Robitaille’s praise of and gratitude for the support she and her family received — and continue to get — at Grandview isn’t unique. Thousands of parents have sought Grandview’s expertise in assessing, diagnosing, prescribing and providing clinical treatment, programs, therapies and equipment for kids and youth with physical and/or developmental needs.
“The world is emerging great new ways to use technology, and Grandview is benefiting from these developments.”
The independently operated not-for-profit organization’s long history dates back to 1953, when parents from Durham Region — tired of travelling to Toronto to get care for their children — formed the Oshawa and District Cerebral Palsy Parent Council. This council changed names and buildings many times over the years until the facility then known as Grandview Rehabilitation & Treatment Centre of Durham Region was built in 1983. (The name changed to Grandview Children’s Centre in 2004.) As the only outpatient paediatric rehabilitation facility in the region, Grandview works with children with neurodevelopmental, developmental, communication and physical needs, including children with autism, speech challenges, cerebral palsy and genetic and metabolic disorders. Service providers include speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, audiologists, social workers and developmental paediatricians. The centre also has an on-site education partner, Campbell Children’s School, where more than 50 kids (supported by Grandview healthcare providers and school staff) attend junior and senior kindergarten. Though it was originally designed to support 400 children, Grandview’s 200 employees now serve more than 17,000 kids each year across their Oshawa centre and six satellite locations. Chief executive officer Lorraine Sunstrum-Mann started at Grandview nine years ago. Coming from the hospital sector as a registered nurse who obtained her MBA, she also brought with her a background in early childhood education (ECE), her career prior to nursing. “I’ve come full circle by meeting my ECE and nursing background with children who have disabilities,” she says. In her time at Grandview, Sunstrum-Mann has directed the centre’s grow — both in staff and patients — and she’s been instrumental in the behind-the-scenes work to build a larger headquarters in Ajax, Ont. She’s also been at the forefront of impressive advances in research, innovation and technology. And that’s where Grandview truly shines — in its commitment to advancing research and innovation. “Fostering a ‘culture of inquiry’ and inspiring each other to advance our capabilities; being flexible and innovative to accomplish goals” are key values the organization stands by.
Technology and Independence
“The world is emerging great new ways to use technology, and Grandview is benefiting from these developments,” says Sunstrum-Mann. Ways that technology assists children with communication have already made an impressive mark. “These are big areas of innovation. Non-verbal children may not be able to talk, but they can learn to communicate in other ways, and technology plays a big role here,” she says. For example, at the Campbell Children’s School, teachers and education assistants work with kindergarteners to use devices to express themselves. “We’re moving from using cardboard picture boards to electronic pictures, switch technology (which lets them answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and complex systems that use voice output. This is empowering — they know they can use these devices to make sure their needs are known and met,” Sunstrum-Mann explains. Mobility and a feeling of independence are also critical. “Wheelchairs were a means for transit, but now they’re high-tech machines. There are chairs that can interface with the electronics in the home and do things like turn lights on and off. This offers a level of independence and achievement,” she says. “There’s a project at Ontario Tech University that’s looking at chairs using GPS so students can program where their classes are and don’t have to worry about navigating. There are many young adults who never would’ve thought they could go from A to B on their own and now they can.” Sunstrum-Mann affectionately describes one staff member who has cerebral palsy who uses his head to control his autonomous vehicle. “He says he never thought he’d be able to get into a vehicle and go where he needed without having a caretaker with him, and that’s really exciting,” she says. Grandview has Wild Wheelers classes, which teach kids how to use their power chairs. “Kids we’re teaching will be users of that technology in sophisticated ways.”
Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality
Joy may be one of the most exciting fixtures at Grandview. The well-loved robot can greet kids, sing songs, dance and more. “I liked the fact that Joy can drive around,” says Kurt, a 13-year-old who shadowed Sunstrum-Mann, acting as CEO for a day in January. “I took Joy to see kids and got her to talk to them and if they wanted her to dance, I’d make her dance,” he says. “It’s been fun to watch where Joy is taking us, and it’s been remarkable to see kids engage with her, especially those who may not feel comfortable socializing with others,” says Sunstrum-Mann. Joy may not be the only robot gracing Grandview’s halls for long. Milo is a robot designed to help children diagnosed with autism improve their social interactions — it is programmed to help them learn to express empathy and understand emotions. “We’re really excited about the opportunities Milo will bring,” she says. Like robots, virtual reality (VR) can make a huge impact on children when they least expect it. One of Grandview’s clients, who has autism and sits on the Youth Advisory Committee, shared his knowledge of VR at a presentation for the board. “He explained VR’s utility for distracting kids experiencing anxiety when waiting for a clinic appointment, or during appointments that can cause pain, such as Botox injections for spasticity,” Sunstrum-Mann says. “He brought the unit and took us through how to use it. My mind was blown. I laughed after because when the demo was done and I removed the device, the real world seemed so flat. That VR world is incredible.” The $800 price tag per unit seems like a steal, when you think about a child snorkelling or exploring a jungle while waiting for an appointment. A family close to Grandview donated a unit to the centre in their son’s name. “Everything at Grandview has such meaning. This was a great gift in memory of a young man.”
A Peek into Current Research
Grandview’s commitment to research involving technology and innovation is ongoing — there are many studies with partner organizations that ultimately hope to enhance the lives of Grandview’s children, and children all over Canada. One current study dubbed “SoloWalker” has researchers (including those from Grandview and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) examining the strengths and weaknesses of the Gait Enable walker (a robotic walker). The goal is to make changes to the adult walker so it can be used by teenagers and young adults. Another study, this one in partnership with Ontario Tech University, looks at the development of an autonomous wheelchair that would be used by school-agers with cerebral palsy.
Transitioning to Ajax
Orion Robitaille is now a busy eight-year-old. His mother, Marilyn, says he can put together short sentences and phrases with his iPad. “He is still considered non-verbal, with less than five consistent words. That said, we are now starting to work on more conversational skills.” When asked how much Grandview has meant to her family, Robitaille can’t say enough. “We’ve been supported by speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers, in-person and online parent support groups and more. Grandview has been amazing in supporting us all the way through,” she says. “I am now a member of the Grandview Family Advisory Committee as a way to give back for all of the many ways they have helped Orion and my family.”