Speech Therapy Works

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.

 

 

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Speech Therapy Works

SaLT, EP & an Assembly

It has been a busy week at Bear HQ for meetings with professionals and thinking about Little Bear’s needs. On Wednesday we had our second session with his Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT); on Thursday Grizzly and I met with school and the Educational Psychologist (EP) and today Little Bear had an assembly and his first taste of public speaking. Each event has been thought provoking in its own way.

SaLT Session 2:

This week’s session consisted of further assessment and rapport building. The Therapist is continuing to impress me. This week she gave me the assessment findings from the previous week as she said she would. I find it is all very well professionals promising things but it is the actually doing them that earns brownie points.

The results are interesting, with scores ranging from the 5th to 75th percentiles. For those not familiar with percentiles, a score at the 5th percentile means that if you took 100 children the same age as Little Bear, he would score better than only 5 of them but at the 75th percentile, he is scoring better than ¾ of them. It is an unusual and atypical scoring profile. You would usually expect children to have a cluster of scores round about the same level across all of their skills. As all of these scores relate to his comprehension (understanding) of language it is even more unusual but nevertheless it is as I had expected for him.

Little Bear scored well on his understanding of basic concepts such as hot/cold, same/different, in/on/under. We have worked on these concepts so I would expect his knowledge to be fairly good. The longer or more complex an instruction became, the more difficult Little Bear found it to follow. Instructions containing more complex concepts such as before/after and ‘all except’ were also tricky for him. This fits with our feeling that he can understand a lot more than he used to but that we still need to simplify our language and that the more complex an idea is, the more repetition Little Bear needs.

His grasp of different sentence structures was at the lower end of the expected range and was impacted by his lack of awareness of pronouns.

Despite all that, the scores do also reflect positive progress as at first assessment (when he was seen briefly by a private provider in his pre-school) all his scores were at the 1st percentile. That shows me that his attention and ability to be assessed has improved as well as SaLT input having being effective. Working on language really does make measurable differences in performance. It will be  interesting to see how his scores change over time, especially now that he is having formal therapy alongside the things we do at home.

The Therapist gained more brownie points as she had evidently reflected on Little Bear since our last session. She had noted the unusual quality of his speech and had suspected his vowel sounds might be distorted. This is not a typical pattern of errors and is not a part of “normal development” i.e. most children make speech errors when they are first learning to speak. The errors usually follow a pattern e.g. back sounds such as ‘k’ are made at the front of the mouth instead sounding like ‘t’. This is an expected part of development and it usually rights itself as children develop. However, making vowel distortions is not a typical developmental process. In fact it is fairly rare and neither Little Bear’s Therapist nor myself have ever tackled it in therapy before. Little Bear’s Therapist could have pretended to me that she did know what to do and could have just made up some therapy as she went along. However, she identified that she needed to know more and discussed Little Bear with a colleague who specialises in hearing impairment and would be more knowledgeable about vowels. Consequently she now has a more targeted assessment that she is going to try next week. I find this honesty and seeking of support reassuring. It is important to know when you don’t know. In my view, it makes her more competent, not less. There is nothing worse than somebody who doesn’t know that they don’t know (“unconscious incompetence”) and just blunders on anyway.

The other thing this conversation did for me was provide me with relief that finally another professional (who isn’t me) has identified that Little Bear does not have run of the mill SaLT difficulties and that between his spiky language profile and his dodgy vowels, he does have a Speech and Language Disorder not a straightforward language delay. For any SaLT’s reading, she has not used the new terminology of “Developmental Language Disorder” yet, a term which I do think applies. It will be interesting to see whether she does as we go forwards.

Meeting the EP again

We first met the EP a few weeks ago when we had a consultation meeting. You can read about it here: Seeing the Educational Psychologist

Since then he has spent a morning in class with Little Bear. He observed and played with him and took him out of class for some formal assessment. His teacher told me on the day that Little Bear had been exceptionally well behaved and she wasn’t sure the EP would have seen all the things we had been worried about.

Interestingly the first point that he raised at our feedback meeting was that he had noted Little Bear playing well and interacting appropriately but mostly minding his own business. He had observed on a number of occasions that some of the other boys were quick to blame him for various things when in fact he hadn’t done anything wrong at all. We have had our suspicions about scapegoating and other children exploiting Little Bear’s difficulties with communication but it is different to have that confirmed by a neutral professional. Obviously it is completely wrong and worrying because nobody wants their child to be victimised. I am glad that school are aware of it but I do understand their difficulty in policing everything that happens as they can’t be everywhere or see everything. We shall be keeping a very close eye though.

In general, the EP was pleased with Little Bear’s social and play development. He had carried out some assessment and that showed Little Bear’s non-verbal (cognitive) scores to be around the 10th percentile (below average) and his verbal score to be around the 38th (within the average range). This result is completely at odds with my hunch which is that Little Bear has good cognitive skills and significantly poorer speech and language skills. I think there are a few reasons why it may have come out this way:

  • We have worked A LOT on language and Little Bear has made a lot of progress. We have probably worked on the types of activity that were used in the verbal assessment but not on the ones in the non-verbal bit so he was essentially more practised at the verbal one
  • The verbal assessment used won’t be as accurate as anything used by the SaLT
  • It is difficult to truly separate verbal and non-verbal abilities when so many activities intrinsically rely on language knowledge. The EP talked about picture matching activities such as bird with nest and dog with ? This type of task relies on a child’s knowledge of vocabulary and the meaning of words (semantics). It relies on them having good semantic links between words, something I suspect Little Bear doesn’t have. He does have a lot of words now but I suspect they are stored in a jumble, not nice and orderly and therefore it is hard for him to find the ones that should go together. I feel this says more about his language ability than his cognitive function.

Although the EP is lovely and I have found him very useful, this just highlighted to me how pernicious language difficulties are and how difficult it is to get even very educated professionals to truly understand the impact of them. I am so grateful that I finally have another SaLT on side who really does GET IT. I hope.

The rest of the meeting was taken up with reviewing the strategies already put in place. I was very pleased that school were able to give detailed feedback so are evidently using the strategies and they seem to be working well.

We also discussed transition to year 1. Thankfully Little Bear’s teacher is going to move up with him which assuages a lot of our concerns but it is the jump from EYFS provision to more formal learning that is worrying us all. Little Bear is certainly not ready to sit at a desk all day or to complete learning tasks independently. School are absolutely brilliant at providing him with the specific intervention he needs but we have all agreed to apply for funding in the hope that this will secure ALL the right things next year, when a TA in the classroom is not a given. Next week’s job will be completing all the paperwork…

Assembly:

During the Easter break we were tasked with helping Little Bear learn his words for today’s assembly. I was a bit concerned as only a couple of months ago, Little Bear struggled to hold 3 numbers in his auditory memory long enough to repeat them back to me. Learning words was not going to be easy for him. Yet today he stood up in front of the whole school and a load of parents, walked sensibly to the microphone and speaking loudly, without any sort of prompt, said all of his words: “Every day we are running or walking a mile and its keeping us fit and healthy”. I don’t think everyone understood what he was saying but I don’t care because it was a phenomenal achievement for him.

I have just picked him up from school and he has the dreaded take home book. I absentmindedly flicked through it when he handed it to me and was shocked to see pages of children’s handwriting. “Oh God, look at this” I said, waving it under my friend’s nose. “Don’t worry” he tried to reassure me “they’ve had that for a week”. I didn’t like to tell him that it wouldn’t matter how long we had it for, Little Bear still wouldn’t be able to write more than a copied or dictated very tiny sentence. It is SO hard not to compare and not to feel disheartened. However, I know that my gorgeous little dude is working as hard as he can with every fibre of his being and in his language disordered world, learning 16 words off by heart is incredible. Writing or no writing, he’s still incredible.

 

SaLT, EP & an Assembly