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Blues Clues and Birthdays: The Life Skills Clinic is Life-changing

Mary Martha Tripeny had one of the best days ever at the Life Skills Clinic this year. 

Her 20-year-old son Fred is mostly nonverbal and has limited mobility due to cerebral palsy and autism. He had multiple brain surgeries as a baby and has spent nearly all of his life unable to care for himself in any way. 

That was until the Tripenys met Marilyn Schneider, director of the Life Skills Clinic. The clinic, located at the University of Utah, provides therapy to help clients like Fred improve coordination, balance, eating, sleeping, and self-care. It leverages the clinical expertise of University of Utah faculty who supervise and train students studying to join the occupational therapy profession.

Five years of weekly work with Schneider and her team later, Fred can open a refrigerator, wear mittens, and even plan a birthday party. 

“My birthday was coming up and Fred was like ‘birthday party, birthday party, birthday party,’” Tripeny said. “Marilyn asked, ‘should we throw your mom a birthday party?’ and he said ‘yes, yes, yes.’ They planned it together; he was very involved in telling her through Blue’s Clues that there should be presents and cake.”

Fred Tripeny
Mary Martha Tripeny smiles as she watches her son Fred in a session with Schneider

As a stay-at-home mom, Tripeny has dedicated her life to Fred’s care. Their experiences with occupational therapy in the past hadn’t been successful. When the Tripenys met Schneider, she knew something was different. 

“I told Marilyn that I needed to have him work on something actionable and specific, since I was responsible for all of his care,” she said. “Marilyn said, ‘that’s fantastic, I can work with that.’ That’s the first time an occupational therapist had been like, ‘let’s jump in.’”

Since Fred started working with the Life Skills Clinic, Tripeny estimates that he’s achieved at least 60 goals, including opening a Ziploc bag and holding a toothbrush in his mouth. His biggest success involves mitten tolerance. 

“I like to take Fred horseback riding, but it’s been impossible to get out in the winter because he’d refuse to wear mittens and he’d get frostbite,” Tripeny said. “We set the goal at OT and made it after six months. That was really gratifying.”

Marilyn Schneider
Marilyn Schneider laughs as she works in a session with Fred Tripeny
“Going to the clinic revitalized my relationship with Fred, because it gave us new things to work on at home that he’d had a positive initial experience with. It’s been phenomenal and unexpected.”
Mary Martha Tripeny

The youthful environment of the Life Skills Clinic has also made a big difference in Fred’s progress. He works with student clinicians on a regular basis and is surrounded by fellow peers, who have inspired him to try new tasks. 

“Fred really feels like he has a buddy when he works with the students—every single one has been great,” Tripeny says. “The clinic is so good at helping him develop social and leisure skills. He’s gotten into drumming and now he can play in a band with his cousins and connect in some way with his family.”

The students also used Fred’s favorite show to connect with him on a personal level. One day at the clinic, they played a Blue’s Clues game with paw prints. They taped paw prints around the room to help Fred practice looking at and interacting with his environment. 

“The students have time and energy for that,” Tripeny says. “They’re like ‘Fred’s my guy, how do I connect with him?’” 

Serving as a primary caregiver can be a challenging, never-ending job. Tripeny has had her share of frustrations along the way. She's received a much-needed dose of encouragement and support from Schneider and the Life Skills Clinic.  

“Going to the clinic revitalized my relationship with Fred, because it gave us new things to work on at home that he’d had a positive initial experience with,” she says. “It’s been phenomenal and unexpected.”

The Life Skills Clinic

Occupational therapists at the University of Utah Life Skills Clinic work with people of all ages to evaluate each situation and organize a treatment plan which leads to greater independence and satisfaction with the activities that they want and need to do as part of his or her daily routine.