Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Say what?

Our son Owen is speech-delayed, significantly speech-delayed. I noticed it quite early on, when he was about 18 months old (if not younger) -- he was still coming to the store with me at that point, so I had a chance to watch him alongside other children who would come to the store. Even at such a young age, there was a noticeable difference.

There was no lack of communication, but there was a definite lack of verbal communication. If Owen wanted to show me something, he would gently place both hands on my cheeks, turn my face to look at something, and point to it. If he wanted to communicate his displeasure at something, he would let out a very long, very loud high-pitched scream, it would get not only my attention, but the attention of everyone around us. Not pleasant, but highly effective!

At the time, many people around me, including our family physician, shrugged off his speech delay, laying blame on the fact he had two older sisters who did all the talking for him. Many people suggested he would just wake up speaking full sentences one day (wouldn't that be nice?). We took Owen to a local 'First Words' clinic where he was assessed as being speech delayed, but due to his age, they recommended we give him more time before seeking therapy. Rather than putting our name on their waiting list, I started to doubt my intuition, people thought I was over-reacting, and I was starting to wonder if perhaps I was blowing things out of proportion.

To put it in context, there were no other issues of concern. Owen was social and outgoing, and he responded well to verbal directions. There didn't seem to be any indications that his speech delay was related to hearing -- short of simply not starting to say any words, Owen was perfect in every other way. His lack of speech wasn't due to a lack of effort on his part, there seemed to be a disconnect between his brain and his mouth. He would often open his mouth and attempt a word, but an open mouth would be as far as things got.

By the time Owen was 2.5 years old, it was clear he wasn't just going to wake up speaking sentences. He's been in therapy for over a year now, and my biggest regret is not pushing for it when he was younger, when I took him to that first clinic. I see a lot of parents with young children at the store, and when I notice non-verbal behaviour like Owen's, I will usually start a dialogue about it with the parent, not because I'm trying to be nosey, but because the road to fixing a speech problem like Owen's is such a long one, the earlier you start, the sooner you can resolve it. If I could pass on some tips to make it easier, my advice would include the following suggestions:

  • take your child to a speech screening clinic. Many municipalities offer government-funded programs that focus on the prevention, early identification and treatment of speech and language problems in young children.

  • look into your insurance plan's coverage for speech therapy. Private speech therapy is very expensive, to the tune of approximately $100/hour. When we started this journey, my husband's insurance plan gave us $500 towards speech therapy. That' doesn't go far! We changed our plan at the first opportunity to bump up our coverage for Owen's speech therapy.

  • if you can afford it, see a private speech therapist. Yes, it's expensive, but it's money well-spent. Even if you pass (or should I say fail?) a speech screening clinic, you can expect a delay of up to a year before getting your child into a therapy program.

After Owen went to the second screening clinic at 2.5 years old, it took almost a full year (1o months, to be exact) before he was placed in a therapy program. We were seeing a private speech therapist at that point on a weekly basis. The First Words speech programs that we've attended have typically ran for eight weeks, with an eight week break, then a reassessment, then a new round of treatment. On our eight week breaks, we go back to the private speech therapist.

Speech therapy is a very arduous process, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. We work on sounds one at a time, it basically boils down to patience, practice, and perseverence. Owen's speech delay is related to his fine motor skills -- until you stop and think about it, you likely don't realize how complex the process of speech is. Your mouth is a fine-tuned machine, any verbal sound is the result of a series of actions, from the way your tongue curls, to how air passes through your mouth or nose, to how you shape your lips. If any one part is broken, the whole machine is broken.

We kept Owen out of school this year, he should have started JK, but we wanted his first year at school to be enjoyable, and realistically, in a class with 20 other kids, a teacher wouldn't have the time to try and understand what he's trying to say. I was also concerned about Owen socially, that he wouldn't be able to make friends because he wouldn't be able to communicate with kids, who often ask "Why doesn't he speak?". This past summer, I caught some older boys being mean to Owen at one of his sister's soccer games, they had convinced him to take his shoes off, he had his eyes closed, and they were in the midst of hiding his shoes. If I hadn't happened upon the scene, we wouldn't have known what happened to his shoes, he wouldn't have been able to tell us what the boys had done. I wanted to string those little buggers up, if looks could kill, let me tell you!

Owen has come a long way, admittedly, there are many times when we still can't understand him, and nodding and smiling just doesn't cut it anymore, so there are a lot of tantrums around these parts (both him and us) when Owen is trying to say something, but we're very proud of the progress he's made. If you even suspect your child is dealing with a speech delay, you can start the ball rolling by taking him to get screened. If your child magically wakes up one day speaking full sentences, you can always take your child off the waiting list, no harm, no foul. If he does actually need help, the sooner you start, the better.


  1. This is great advice. And really, children just don't 'wake up speaking'. I've heard that as a reassurance many times before. Trusting our intuition is so important when it comes to our babies, no one knows them better than we do.
    Those boys who were bothering Owen will get what they deserve someday... oh that sounded mean... :(

  2. My son was on the "First Words" program list from 19 months until he aged out last spring. He never needed full therapy sessions (he was borderline) but had 2 hour-long sessions to coach him on individual sounds as well as periodic progress assessments. Now that he's in Senior Kindergarten I'm waiting to find out about the school-age program. His teachers were concerned about his speech last year (same teacher this year), and I asked about the program in early September, but so far no information has been sent home. It looks like I'm going to have to be a little more assertive.

  3. A friend of mine had a son was accepted into the school-based speech program, and it took a long, long, time to actually get into the program, and lots of assertiveness on her behalf. Both our older girls were also recommended for the school-based speech program, solely b/c they had lisps (barely noticeable, could speak fine otherwise). If their JK teacher had Owen in her class, then she'd know what a real speech delay is, and perhaps she wouldn't be so keen to fill up the program with subtle lisps!

    susie ;)