Speech Language Pathologists and Early Intervention for Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers

Effective communication is fundamental to human development and plays a critical role during the formative years of a child’s life. Without the ability to communicate clearly, children lose access to many of the educational experiences that will mold them into adults. The situation is frustrating and debilitating for the children involved, and stressful and painful for their families.

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Speech language pathologists can step in to address those problems at the very source with life-changing therapeutic interventions that make a real difference for those children and their families.

In a position paper on early intervention for children with disabilities, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends that speech language pathologists be actively involved with the team responsible for evaluating and supporting the child, including behavioral analysts, therapists, parents, educators and other healthcare professionals.

It’s hard to find a more rewarding way to apply an education in speech language pathology than by working in early intervention.

Early Intervention Helps Ensure Better Results from Speech Therapy

From social integration to impulse control to academic performance, it is well known that early diagnosis and intervention for children with autism leads to better overall outcomes. And this holds just as true with speech-language therapeutic intervention.

Study after study has confirmed that early detection of speech and language difficulties, and subsequent treatment at the youngest possible age, can make a dramatic difference in ensuring positive outcomes for young patients. The importance of SLP participation in early intervention therapies is hard to overstate.

Stuttering was one of the earliest disabilities the emerging field of speech-language pathology addressed, and it remains a significant affliction in early childhood and an important part of the SLP field. According to the National Stuttering Foundation, around one percent of the world’s population suffers from the affliction, which is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and can be socially stifling if not corrected at an early age.

Stuttering usually begins in early childhood, between the ages of two and five, and an estimated five percent of the population will struggle with the affliction.

But effective therapies can reduce stuttering through early intervention programs, as demonstrated by the Lidcombe early intervention program study which was shown to reduce syllabic stuttering by more than half over a nine-month period. Through such early SLP interventions, more than 80 percent of afflicted children lose their stutter before entering their teen years.

Even Fun Therapies Are Serious Business For Early Intervention SLPs

Working with young children adds a number of challenges and responsibilities to the work speech pathologists typically perform. Services have to accommodate not only the patient, but also their immediate family members, who may be having serious difficulties themselves coping with the situation. SLPs have to educate families on treatment strategies and the best way to support children who may still be in prelinguistic phases of development.

A caring nature and special bedside manner is necessary to accommodate the concerns of parents while maintaining a working connection with the patient.

Early intervention SLPs are often in the unique position of being able to incorporate games and play in the therapeutic process. Many children respond better to therapy couched as a game—and many speech therapies and diagnostic routines have the repetitive tone of a game anyway.

Discussing serious medical issues with parents and other practitioners is no laughing matter, though. Being able to switch back and forth from playful to professional is a common trait found among the most successful early intervention SLPs.

Age Appropriate Treatment

Early interventionists may work with kids ranging anywhere from 3 to 18 years of age. They need to know a wide range of appropriate treatments to span that range. SLPs commonly work to develop skills such as:

  • Phonology
  • Semantics
  • Morphology and syntax
  • Pragmatics
  • Literacy

Treatments are age-appropriate. Lovaas or milieu therapy techniques may be used with younger children, integrating treatments into the child’s natural environment; while more advanced pragmatics and social discourse methods may be better applied at the junior high or high school level.

SLPs Are Part of a Larger Team With a Big Picture View

When children face speech issues at a young age, it is commonly the result of other diseases or disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, or apraxia. Consequently, SLPs are rarely working alone on these cases. As part of multidisciplinary care team, they discuss treatments and develop a long-term action plan with other medical and education professionals. They may work in settings as diverse as hospitals, schools, or homes.

Because so many speech problems result from disabilities or disfigurement in the vocal tract, SLPs work with doctors to discuss medical and surgical as well as therapeutic options for treatment. An SLP might determine that pediatric dysphagia, for example, is severe enough to require surgical intervention in order to help the child eat and drink more easily.

An early intervention SLP has to become adept at diagnosing conditions based on relatively few clues from their patient. Without the tools to communicate what they are feeling or experiencing, children present a particular diagnostic challenge. SLPs have to look for clues such as:

  • The presence or absence of common baby talk sounds
  • The patterns in which a child moves their lips and tongue
  • The timing of an infant’s first words
  • Listening for difficulties in the formation of particular categories of sounds
  • The sensitivity of nerves around the mouth to touch or temperature extremes

Using their advanced knowledge of the causes of speech issues, a qualified SLP can combine subtle hints from those and other observations to develop an effective diagnosis and eventual treatment plan.

SLPs don’t just work on correcting issues in early intervention environments, however; they are also responsible for helping prevent the development of future disorders. By assessing risk factors and providing parents and teachers with treatments and warning signs to watch for, SLPs can head off future problems with literacy and comprehension that might otherwise develop in at-risk kids.

Stuttering, again, is the poster child for this type of preventative work. Studies suggest(PDF) that intervention in stuttering before the age of 3 helps enormously with developing speaking fluency later in life.

Speech language pathologists who enjoy working with children but can maintain professional objectivity and relationships with parents and peers will find early intervention a rewarding career choice.

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