How speech and language therapists are changing children's lives
Seven per cent of children aged five have speech difficulties. Stephanie Bell talks to two families whose youngsters’ lives have been transformed by speech and language therapists.
The number of children struggling to talk is rising dramatically, taking over dyslexia as the most common special educational need.
Speech and language difficulties are traditionally found among children with another condition such as a genetic syndrome, hearing loss or neurological disease.
However, a rise in issues among children with no other medical condition is causing alarm.
A Department of Education census last year showed that there has been a 25% increase in primary school children having difficulty with speech and language.
It is not known why the figure is climbing but many professionals blame the growing use of screen-based gadgets as convenient 'babysitters' and a trend for hard-working parents to spend less time with their children.
Communication difficulties put children at greater risk of poor literacy, mental health issues and poorer employment outcomes in adulthood.
It is also feared that many children are going undiagnosed and early intervention around the age of two years old is critical to a child's future development.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) Therapists is very concerned about the figures.
Speech and language therapy is a vital service that improves children's language and communication skills, and aids their personal development
Head of the RCSLT office in Northern Ireland, Alison McCullough outlined how important it is for children to get help as soon as possible.
She says: "The rise we are seeing in the number of children in school with speech language and communication needs identified as their primary SEN is concerning - a 25 % increase in primary and 35% increase in post primary since 2012/3.
"We know that 7.5% of children have a developmental language disorder which is not attributed to any other condition.
"Some children don't acquire language in the way that is expected and have difficulty developing it.
"It is still not known why this is although it does appear to be more common in children who come from a social disadvantaged background.
"Too much screen time - and not just the children - but parents too spending time on phones and tablets, means they are not talking to their children and this is thought to be a contributory factor."
The RCSLT, which is the professional body for speech and language therapists, is lobbying for more training of early year professionals to try and identify issues with young children.
Alison says that parents too can play their part: "Generally mothers and fathers are usually able to understand their children's speech even though it hasn't developed sufficiently for other social groups.
"If a parent is having difficulty understanding their child's speech around the age of two then they should ask about a referral to a speech and language therapist.
"Children need to be accessing early age support.
"It stands to reason that if they have difficulty forming words then they will also have problems when it comes to reading and it can impact on their confidence and eventually their careers.
"Parents should talk to their babies and be able to see the baby trying to vocalise back to them and that should be happening before their first birthday and is the start of communication.
"It is so important for parents to talk to their babies in the early months even though they might not be getting much back from them.
"That is the window when early communication is instigated."
Of course, speech and language therapists have long been a lifeline for children who struggle with speech and language because of other medical issues.
For these families the work of the therapists is crucial in helping their children to communicate.
Today two families whose children have conditions which impact on their ability to speak share details of how speech and language therapy has helped open up a new world to their children.
'People can understand Fionn now and his confidence has soared'
Fionn Doody (6), from Saintfield, who is profoundly deaf, is the youngest of three, having an older brother Odhran (9) and sister Ciara (7).
His mum Jo (42) is an Open University tutor in sociology and criminology, and his father Donnacha (46) is a scientific officer with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.
His parents believe Fionn has been deaf since birth although he wasn't diagnosed until he was 14 months old. He was fitted with hearing aids in November 2013 and the following July was given cochlear implants which have given him some hearing.
Jo says: "The implants are just phenomenal; he wouldn't have been able to hear anything without them.
"With the hearing aids he was just getting vibration. After the implants we noticed he was becoming more engaged.
"The whole process of learning to listen and speak did take a long time as his brain had to process all the new sounds like the door bell ringing, mummy speaking or even the microwave going.
"That's where the speech and language therapy came in.
"The therapist has been fantastic and has given me homework to do at home and help teach him how to say different words and help him to communicate."
Fionn is a pupil of Millennium Integrated Primary School in Ballynahinch where he has a full-time classroom assistant who works closely with the speech and language therapist, helping him to improve his listening and communication skills.
To Jo, learning to speak has transformed the quality of her son's life.
She says: "It has allowed him to be in mainstream school and if you met him he could have a conversation with you.
"It has really allowed Fionn to interact with his friends and that has made a huge difference to his confidence which has just soared because suddenly people can understand him now. I think early intervention is so critical in these cases.
"It was a long and extremely difficult process getting him diagnosed and I think the sooner you go through it, the better the outcome will be.
"Fionn had two years of silence and although he doesn't hear the way you and I would hear, and he has to concentrate really hard, the fact that he can is wonderful.
"The speech and language therapist has given him a voice and shown me how to help him at home.
"He has a wonderful relationship with his speech and language therapist because she spent a lot of time building that up and we just feel really lucky that he has her."
'The therapist believed in Ana-Lily from day one and pushed her'
Mark Ferguson's daughter Ana-Lily (8) struggles to communicate because of a condition called dystonia. The family lives in Craigavon and Mark (37) teaches in Sperrinview Special School. His wife Delia (36) is a full-time carer for their daughter.
Dystonia is the name for uncontrolled and sometimes painful muscle movements or spasms.
It can start at any age and little Ana-Lily, who is a primary four pupil in Fleming Fulton School, was diagnosed at the age of three months.
She experiences constant involuntary movements and is unable to walk, crawl or talk and her head has to be supported.
Her father Mark explains how the condition affects the quality of his daughter's life: "It is a physical disability that impacts on her day to day life and her wee body can't do anything for itself.
"She does have the ability to learn but needs an awful lot of stimulation because she can't engage in activities for herself.
"At school she likes the other children around her playing and she enjoys watching them. It is very difficult to watch her become frustrated because she can't do things that she wants to.
"She does have quite a high tolerance of her disability but she will reach out and try to grab something, but physically she just can't."
Of all the people - doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, teachers - who have an input into Ana-Lily's life, her father says for him the most important is her speech and language therapist.
"Looking at her people might think she has no potential but her speech and language therapist believed in her from day one and pushed her," he says.
"She has surprised us by what she has achieved and it has given her a way to communicate with us and others around her.
"She is non-verbal but she can vocalise some things now. She can laugh and giggle and let us know when she is frustrated by giving off.
"The speech and language therapist has used eye gaze technology using a computer screen and a mouse which she controls with her eyes and that has opened a new world to her.
"Using pictures on the screen, Ana-Lily can look and choose what she wants to do. It is allowing her to communicate her needs and it is absolutely unbelievable."
Mark is impressed by just how much time the speech and language therapist spent working with his daughter to establish just how much Ana-Lily does understand.
Using the computer images has opened up a whole new world of choice for Ana-Lily and a way of communicating with her parents and those around her. Mark adds: "It has made a huge difference to her day-to-day life. We would say that the speech and language therapist has given her a voice. She is a wee individual who has a wee personality of her own.
"You want to see your child making progress and achieving goals and her speech and language therapist sees her as someone worth trying hard for and she opened our eyes to Ana-Lily's potential.
"Of all the people she needs in her life, I would put her speech and language therapist at the top in terms of the importance and impact on her life."
Facts and figures behind SLCN
Seven per cent of children around five years of age have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
One in every five pupils has a special educational need: approximately 1.6 million.
In 2013, SLCN were the primary special educational needs in state-funded primary schools.
As many as 60% of young offenders have SLCN. And 88% of long-term unemployed young men have also been found to have SLCN.
Vocabulary difficulties at age five are significantly associated with poor literacy, mental health and employment outcomes at age 34.
Men who have speech difficulties in adolescence have a significantly higher risk of mental health problems in later life.
Children with language difficulties have an impoverished quality of life in terms of moods and emotions, and are more at risk in terms of social acceptance and bullying.