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Children may suffer any number of speech impediments, which require speech therapy intervention.

There is a growing need for speech therapy intervention to treat various speech impediments – early intervention is key.

A common problem

Delayed speech and language is the most common developmental problem in children, according to Joburg-based audiologist and speech and language therapist Beverley Ordman. “A growing number of the 0–3 year old population is not developing the early speech and language skills they should be. By 12 months, they’re not saying single words yet. By 18–24 months they are not starting to combine words like ‘me go’ or ‘want cookie’.”

“By age 3, they’re not forming small three- to four-word sentences,” adds Cape Town speech and language therapist Carianne Vermeulen.

Articulation errors, such as a lisp, and stuttering or dysfluency in the early years are also quite common, says Ordman.

In addition to the common speech impediments, Vermeulen also sees more children presenting with poor listening skills. She says many children don’t know how to make sense of what they hear, and we learn speech and language by what we hear and understand.

A growing number of children on the autism spectrum have speech impediments and difficulty with language development, and the social use of language (pragmatics), says Vermeulen. “This includes knowing that we take turns when communicating and we make eye contact.

“In children six years and older, issues include language-learning disorders, articulation disorders, and auditory processing and phonological awareness disorders, among other speech impediments.”

Read more about speech development problems here.

The importance of early intervention

A child’s critical language-learning phase takes place around the first five or six years of life, says Ordman. Therefore, early speech therapy intervention is crucial for children battling to develop communication skills or with speech impediments. Early language skills underpin subsequent reading and writing skills. They are necessary for a child’s future success in their academic and personal lives, so it’s important not to ignore any sign that a child’s communication development may be delayed.

Seek professional help as soon as you detect a problem, says Ordman. “If it was important enough to bring up with your paediatrician, then it’s important enough to get a second opinion from a speech therapist,” says Vermeulen.

“The sooner we start treating speech impediments, the bigger the chances of helping children develop age-appropriate skills. This is most important before they enter the school system when they have a whole host of things keeping them behind,” advises Vermeulen.

What to expect from therapy

A solid treatment approach for speech impediments is vital.  This will consider your child’s strengths and weaknesses and the family and support system. Speech therapists will also involve parents or caregivers in the treatment plan as carry over of new skills into the everyday environment is the ultimate goal of therapy.

“If your child presents with any speech impediments or language delays, you will be advised to first have your child’s hearing tested as it is one of the major causes of language delay, particularly in the preschool population,” says Ordman.

Usually therapy is once a week, but there are disorders for which intensive therapy (3–4 sessions a week) may be recommended. However, your therapist should be sensitive to the cost of therapy. A typical session will last between 30 and 45 minutes and will be interspersed with play and reinforcement time.

When dealing with younger children, the therapist will aim to achieve all the goals set out for your child before schooling begins. “If we get to pre-grade R and see that the child’s not going to be able to mainstream we refer to an educational psychologist,” says Vermeulen.

Read our article on how to help stuttering children.

What parents can do

Children who make the greatest strides in speech therapy are those with supportive and involved parents, says Ordman. Vermeulen shares a few take-home activities:

Interact

Ditch the TV and tablet, and engage in face-to-face interaction. This will teach young children to initiate conversation, keep a conversation going and take turns instead of sitting passively in front of a screen. Important to note that establishing successful communication begins long before a child actually starts speaking. When a baby cries and the mom responds with “Oh, you’re hungry. Let’s give you milk”, they are hearing language and associating it: when they cry, you respond.

Talk them through an activity

The better the child can participate in the activity, the better their language-learning will be. Your child is crawling to the bucket with water and soap, follow them there and talk about what they are seeing.

Respond with enthusiasm

Research has shown that when an adult responds promptly and enthusiastically to their child’s message, it encourages the child to engage further and develops their language more.

Add language to your child’s experiences

“Yes, the door is broken. It’s broken because Daddy pulled too hard on it”. Talk to them about what they are busy with, “Oh, Daddy sees you’ve got the scissors and you are cutting; cutting out the big circle”. Talk to them about what you are busy with: “Look, mommy’s cooking. First I’m going to add the butter, then we’re going to stir and then we’re going to fry”.

Wait for a response

Research shows that it’s best to wait seven to 10 seconds.

Don’t over-correct

The better option is to model what we want, without making it negative for them. “Yes a s-s-s-nake.”

Treat your child as a full communication partner

Always be one step ahead to encourage them to extend themselves, in a manageable way. If your child uses two-word combinations “mommy come… daddy sit… car go” add one word – “mommy is coming”.

Read books

Instead of reading word for word, keep it interesting. Talk about the pictures, make the voices of the characters in the pictures and let your child do the voices too.

Ask open-ended questions

So, “What did you read today?” and “Who did you play with?” You can always use their answers to elaborate – “Oh so you played with Jason. What game did you play?”

Repeat the same words often

Research shows that a child has to hear something about 100 times before they will attempt saying it.

Give your child positive reinforcement

Remark when, for instance, your child comes up with “truck”, and until this point everything has been “car”.

Resources

Development and milestones: Nubabi
Play activities (0–3 years old): Learning, play and your newborn
To find a speech therapist near you: saslha.co.za

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