As a Speech and Language Therapist it shouldn’t really be a revelation to me that speech and language therapy works. Obviously I have always believed in it otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed with it as a career for over 14 years. It’s just that trusting something works because you understand the theory behind it and actually experiencing something on a practical level, within your own home, with your child, is quite different.
Obviously I have experienced success in my professional life, but that has been within the confines of a large caseload and various time and resource pressures. In the latter part of my NHS career, as a more senior clinician, my main role was assessment and report-writing. I rarely did any therapy as we had a structure where skilled assistants carried out care plans under our supervision. It meant I didn’t get to know children as well as I’d have liked and I didn’t get to share in their small steps of progress week by week. I re-assessed and reviewed progress, seeing improved assessment scores but that isn’t the same as cultivating progression yourself.
Now that I’m an independent therapist I’m really enjoying being able to properly get to know the children I work with. I’m completely invested in their therapy and am just as pleased when they move forwards or overcome something as I am when Little Bear does. I do see (and feel) therapy working now.
However, what we have experienced at home has taken my belief in speech and language therapy to a whole other level.
I was recently running a communication workshop (for adopters, prospective adopters & professionals) when somebody asked me a question that made me realise the examples I talk about in it, from Little Bear’s communication profile, paint a bleak picture. The picture is totally accurate and reflective of his communication skills when we first met him, aged 3 and a half. The picture, detailing significant difficulties with attention and listening, comprehension, expressive language and speech sound disorder was bleak. At the time I was fairly overwhelmed by his level of need and the magnitude of the task ahead of us.
Here is a very brief summary of Little Bear’s presentation then:
Little Bear was not tuned into language at all and did not respond to verbal instruction, including his own name. His comprehension was better than it appeared but significantly delayed for his age. Little Bear had a very small vocabulary that didn’t meet his needs. He did not have words for common, everyday objects such as cow, train, television, food items etc. Little Bear couldn’t answer ‘what’s your name’, his only size word was ‘big’, he couldn’t name colours or count and he couldn’t put more than about 3 or 4 words together. The words that Little Bear did have were unintelligible. Little Bear was extremely frustrated and he was often left with no other option but to express himself with his behaviour.
I quickly realised this wasn’t a straightforward language delay and that Little Bear’s needs met the criteria for Developmental Language Disorder
At the time I had no idea what the prognosis would be but I suspected it wasn’t rosy and that speech and language therapy would be a big part of our lives for years to come. It was hard to know where to start and easy to become overwhelmed by priorities. There were times I really questioned my faith in what I was doing and wondered if we’d ever get to where we were hoping to go.
I did not expect, in my wildest dreams, that 2 and a half years later a speech and language therapist would observe Little Bear in his mainstream classroom and say there was no discernible difference in language skills between himself and his peers and deem him ready for discharge. Yes, his attention and listening skills still mark him out and there are some minor speech errors but his comprehension and expressive language skills are now within the expected range for his age.
This near miraculous improvement is due wholly to one thing: speech and language therapy.
Admittedly our circumstances are unusual: most children with DLD do not have a parent who is a speech and language therapist and able to provide targeted intervention on tap 24/7. Little Bear has essentially undergone an intensive 2 and a half year block of therapy. Strategies have been used by the whole family and are an automatic part of the way we talk with Little Bear, not something we use for just a couple of minutes each day. The key strategies have included: using environmental sounds to capture Little Bear’s interest as a way in to listening to language; reducing our language; modelling of vocabulary, sentence structures and sound patterns; repetition; showing, explaining & checking understanding of complex concepts or new words as well as seizing every possible communication opportunity. We have done some direct work on auditory memory, phonological awareness (initial sounds, syllables, rhyme, blending sounds together) and speech sounds.
I suppose at any one time I have always had a current communication aim in mind, whether it has been a specific language concept or speech sound and I have found ways to weave this into play or our usual day to day lives. I have very rarely, if at all, asked Little Bear to sit at a table and ‘do speech therapy’, it has been a much more holistic and inbuilt approach than that.
Little Bear has also been seen by an NHS speech and language therapist throughout the past 10 months or so. She has taken the lead on sorting out Little Bear’s disordered vowels which have been complex to assess and set goals for. Generally she has started us off with a sound or activity and we have carried it on between sessions.
The NHS therapist has also set language goals for school and has provided them with programmes to carry out, which they have done.
All of these strategies, techniques and approaches have worked. Their effectiveness is inarguable. Yes, the sum total of the input Little Bear has had is massive and yes, me being a speech and language therapist does make things different. However, I truly believe that a similar impact could be gained by providing parents with good quality, strategy based communication training alongside regular sessions with a speech and language therapist, who could do the assessing and target setting bits, as well as providing resources and guidance. Similarly, if speech and language techniques can be embedded into teaching and used holistically as part of the curriculum (not here and there for 10 minutes) that too can be highly effective and impactful.
Little Bear is living and breathing proof of the efficacy of speech and language intervention. Prior to treatment when I’m almost certain that no strategies were in place, he made negligible progress. In fact, on entering pre-school shortly after coming home, Little Bear was assessed as having a delay of more than 2 years in all areas of his development, with speech and language and numeracy being the most delayed areas. Within 2.5 years of therapy, that gap has closed (meaning that Little Bear has essentially made 4.5 years’ worth of progress) and his comprehension and expression now measure within age expectations on standardised assessment.
Speech and Language Therapy works.
Whilst his progress has been phenomenal, I should point out that speech therapy is not a panacea. Little Bear still has DLD and I suspect it will impact him to a greater or lesser degree into adulthood but what therapy has done for him is allowed him to reach his communication potential, despite having DLD. Little Bear still finds it difficult to learn new vocabulary and to figure out the sound patterns in new words but we know what to do and the strategies work. The approaches that we have built into our daily lives will continue as Little Bear is still going to need them and it is imperative we continue to strive for that meeting of full potential. As the demands of the curriculum increase, we might find we need to access formal therapy again and that would be okay too.
I feel extremely proud of Little Bear’s progress and find myself constantly marvelling at the things he can say now. Last week he took part in his second school assembly. He learned more than double the words he managed last time and was able to recite them in front of the school without any prompts at all. The naughty streak in me did notice that other children in his class had to read their lines or forgot them completely (I don’t mean that badly, it’s just he has never been able to keep up with them before, let alone outshine anyone and he’s more than earned his moment of glory). Not only that but he sat really well throughout, no teacher attached to his side like previously, and he spoke loudly and clearly. Several people came to me afterwards to comment on how well he had done, the difference being so stark in comparison to previous public appearances.
I am truly grateful to speech and language therapy for not only giving me a career I love but for unlocking my son.
I think I had better make some changes to my workshop too. Although people need to see the bleak picture, they also need to see the sunshine over the rainbow picture that can be gained by using the strategies and applying them diligently. Little Bear’s prognosis appeared extremely poor so his progress really is a beacon of hope.