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Speech is an important life skill. Children with developmental problems in this area may need speech therapy.

It can be rather endearing to hear a young child mispronounce a word or come up with a funny way of saying something. After all, young children are still learning to express themselves. Eventually, if all goes well, they will master speech and language so they can effectively communicate with others.

Children with conditions such as autism or who have cognitive and other developmental delays often require speech therapy.  But let’s focus attention on the typically developing child to find out what potential problems may hide in the wings.

Potential problems

Five-year-old Samantha’s* class teacher referred her to speech therapy because of her lisp and possible auditory processing difficulties. A child with a lisp will often substitute “th” for “s” when articulating a word – they will say “yeth” rather than “yes”.  Samantha’s lisp was fully remediated and her ability to follow more complex verbal instructions improved markedly.  All thanks to a year of speech therapy, sensory integration, occupational therapy and auditory processing therapy.

According to Joburg-based speech and language therapist Mandy Skinner, many children like Samantha have difficulties other than special needs conditions that require her assistance. She explains that some of the common difficulties children encounter include fluency difficulties (such as stuttering), and language delays (when a child develops speech and language skills slower than their peers).

By the age of five or six years old, your child’s speech should be fluent. Although he may occasionally reverse sounds or still be developing the “s”, “r” and “th” sounds. Children with auditory processing difficulties find it difficult to understand speech in noisy environments, follow directions and discriminate between similar-sounding speech sounds, says Skinner.

Read more about common speech impediments here.

Elephant in the room

There is a greater awareness of speech and language development in our schools nowadays. However, teachers and parents still overlook difficulties and their indicators or they are misdiagnosed. “In these instances, the child is often labelled as lazy, naughty, hyperactive, rude or shy.” says Skinner.

Cape Town-based speech and language therapist Catherine Barry agrees. “Children who have difficulties communicating are often very frustrated, and this can lead to challenging behaviour,” she adds. “Usually, in typically developing children, difficulties with social interaction and social skills, delayed play skills or poor listening skills are often not seen as areas requiring intervention. And, often parents are unsure how to develop these skills and where to find help. But they are essential building blocks for effective communication.”

Therapy and what it entails

Your first port of call if your child is struggling in this area is to visit a qualified audiologist to rule out any hearing problems. Then a speech therapist can begin to form a more comprehensive picture of what’s likely going on. Interviews with the parents, standardised tests and consultations with any other professionals form part of this process.

“Once we have a clear profile of the child and have a baseline to measure progress, therapy begins,” explains Barry. “This usually takes place once or twice a week for half an hour at a time.  The type of therapy depends on the age of the child and the nature and severity of the difficulties. Much of the time, therapy is based on play with specific aims and activities planned for each session incorporated into play or games.”

How you can help

There are a number of things you can do at home to help your child’s speech and language development.

Nursery rhymes are important for developing auditory discrimination skills and lay the foundation for reading and spelling skills. “Sing nursery rhymes with your child. It’s important that he sings the words rather than makes them up,” says Barry.

Reading with your child is an excellent way to develop listening and language skills. “Read books with a small amount of print and lots of pictures at first,” advises Barry. “Repetition is very helpful.” As they get older, progress to books with more print and start conversations around the book’s topic.

Model listening behaviour by looking at your child when he speaks, listen actively and respond appropriately. Try to make time to focus on your child each day without the distractions of TV and household chores. “You can also develop sequencing and planning skills by talking your child through an everyday sequence such as making a sandwich,” explains Barry.

Play empowers your child. “Communication skills overlap with play and social interaction skills,” points out Barry.  “Play provides multiple and varied opportunities for learning. Through play a child will be able to observe, explore, reflect and discover, as well as work through certain emotions.” Provide enough stimulating resources that are age- and development-stage-appropriate.

Develop expressive language by encouraging your child to tell you rather than show you. Also, add to what your child says by repeating then expanding on it, says Barry. Child: “Mommy go shop.” Adult: “Mommy is going to the shop.”

And remember that your child will need to hear a new word in various situations before they fully understand its meaning. Just don’t bombard your young child with too much language – give them time to process and respond. “When you take your child to the shops, talk about what you are seeing and doing so that they learn to make a connection between the word they hear and what they observe happening,” says Barry.

*Names have been changed.

Indicators that your child needs speech therapy

  • Your child is saying fewer words, phrases or sentences than his/her peers.
  • You cannot understand what your child is saying.
  • They do not understand what you are saying.
  • Your child has difficulty remembering things that you say.
  • Your child has multiple, involuntary dysfluencies in their speech, such as sound and/or syllable repetitions (“l-l-like this”; “li-li-like this”); prolonged sounds (“llllllike this”); or blocks (“l—ike this”).

Source: Mandy Skinner

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Marc de Chazal