Help for children, adults with speech disorder

With fewer than 10 speech pathologists serving adults and children alike in the island, The Mico University College Child Assessment and Research in Education (CARE) Centre is teaming with an American university to pilot a speech teletherapy service programme beginning with a select number of students.

Speech teletherapy service, which became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, is when speech therapy treatment is administered virtually, for example, utilising Zoom video calling technology. The delivery model allows therapists to treat people in places that would usually not be easily reached.

According to Mico CARE Centre’s speech-language pathologist Brittney Aiken, with the level of shortage in locally available specialists in the field, and with Mico CARE Centre being the only public sector institution that offers speech language pathology in Jamaica, “the uncomfortable reality is that the majority of children with language delays living in Jamaica may never be able to access these services in their entire lifetime”.

The Mico CARE Centre is where most children who present with learning challenges go for assessment here.

Aiken said the speech tele-therapy service pilot, which began last week and is being offered through a partnership with Eastern Illinois University (EIU) in the United States, which is providing a number of speech language specialists, is a novel approach to providing treatment in the area of speech-language pathology in Jamaica.

“This presents as a viable solution that could increase access to service on a larger scale for more children with special needs in Jamaica. This novel approach to providing treatment in the area of speechlanguage pathology has never been tried before by The Mico CARE Centre, but is expected to open up new windows of opportunity to explore other partnerships in this realm,” she said.

According to Aiken, the mechanics of the current programme will see graduate students in the major of speech-language pathology delivering treatment services to a selected number of children, once per week for 40 minutes. The assigned graduate students administering treatment to these children will be closely monitored by a team of highly-trained and well-experienced, licensed speech language pathologists at Eastern Illinois University.

She said the tele-therapy pilot programme also includes a parent/caregiver coaching model that facilitates the involvement of family members in therapy sessions for the children.

“Parent-coaching is a unique component that was added to allow parents/caregivers to receive training and insights from the therapists on how to implement learning strategies that can benefit their children. This level of exposure can help to increase the parents’/caregivers’ confidence level in providing more hands-on assistance to their children in their home environment,” Aiken stated.

She noted that the tripartite partnership represents a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

Mico CARE said all speech language related services, including therapeutic sessions, are being provided at no cost to the families.

“It is also another tangible demonstration of The Mico CARE Centre’s commitment to continuously seek out new avenues and explore available technology to make specialised service and treatment accessible to the families who require these services,” Aiken said.

Speech language pathology and its treatment services are in significant shortage, not only in Jamaica, but worldwide. In the United States alone, statistics revealed that 1.2 million children were diagnosed with a speech disorder in 2022. When the rate is compared to occurrences before the pandemic, of 570,000 children diagnosed with speech disorders per year, this translates to an alarming rate of increase of approximately 110 per cent in just one year, for children in the age range of 0-12 years who were diagnosed with speech disorders in 2022.

“This is a global dilemma, more so in Jamaica where there is a dearth of speech-language pathologists to provide treatment to children in need of related services. This is detrimental to these children’s ability to learn and thrive, considering that effective communication is a daily survival skill that is needed to successfully navigate life,” Aiken pointed out.

According to Aiken, between April and August this year 98 per cent of the children that have been referred to The Mico CARE Centre for speech-and language-related concerns have received formal diagnoses of some degree relating to speech and/or language delay(s). Twenty-eight per cent of the children seen over the same period were specified as having an articulation delay (delayed speech sound development), characterised by unclear speech. Forty-two per cent of these children were specified as having a language delay (difficulty in understanding and expressing their wants/needs/ thoughts), while 24 per cent were specified as having both articulation and language delays.

Four per cent of these children were specified as having a fluency disorder, primarily characterised by stuttering, or selective mutism (a related anxiety disorder that hinders a person’s ability to speak and effectively communicate in certain environmental situations). With the exception of fluency disorder and selective mutism, one of the leading factors accounting for these presentations was autism spectrum disorder, Aiken stated.

TOMORROW: A parent’s experience