Speech Therapy

Is It Really Necessary?

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I must admit that I am not a big fan of speech therapists. When our son was three years old, my husband and I made the “rounds” through various mental health and educational specialists looking for answers, cures, anything to assist us in deciphering our son’s “differences.” During this time I had a run-in with two different speech therapists. Have you ever consumed a favourite food one night not realizing that you were on the verge of catching the flu? That food came flying back out so fast in such an unpalatable state that you can’t even talk about that particular food, let alone eat it again? That’s how I feel about speech therapists. Where I once viewed them as professionals who must truly care about helping children, I came away from my two encounters feeling numb and nauseated.

I would not have even considered consulting with a speech therapist except that the psychologist who had worked with our son suggested it. He could not really find anything “wrong” with our son; said that he was at-risk for developing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) since he did exhibit some symptoms; he ruled out autism because our son was much too affectionate and didn’t come close to meeting the criteria; essentially the psychologist said that our son just marched to the beat of a different drummer. However, the psychologist felt that some speech therapy might help our son express his emotions in a more suitable manner (rather than having a meltdown) and further admitted that he had a bias toward speech therapy because he, as well as his own children had benefited. We had just completed a few month’s worth of weekly sessions with this psychologist, we held his opinion in high esteem, so we felt that a speech assessment and some intervention couldn’t hurt.

The Speech Therapist Who Didn’t Want to Be

The first therapist that we saw was a woman in private practice. She was a client of my husband’s and he felt that she was a competent and compassionate individual based on her treatment of her dog. Two things became apparent to me during the initial assessment: she probably treated her dog much better than she did our child; and she spent a good portion of the session telling me how much she really wanted to be a family therapist and only went into speech therapy because she wasn’t accepted into the family therapy program. She diagnosed our son with numerous speech disorders and added her own little special touch … at no extra charge – her written assessment included that our son was autistic. Our psychologist was incensed upon reading this therapist’s written report and he phoned her (while we were in his office) to express his displeasure that she had stepped over the bounds of her professional knowledge.

My son’s pediatrician also reviewed the report, then asked me to leave the room so that he could spend a few minutes conversing with my son. When the doctor signaled for me to return to the exam room, he proclaimed that he found nothing wrong with his speech and that he felt there was an unnecessary push toward getting children to move out of childhood much too quickly. He felt that speech therapy was only necessary if there was a serious disorder or if the child had an impediment that did not improve with maturity which caused embarrassment for the child. He assured me that my three year old was not in need of speech therapy (he used much stronger and profane terms which I will not convey here).

“Can We Quit Seeing These Friends of Yours? They Are Not Very Nice”

I still felt that there was something wrong with our son and thought that we should possibly try a different speech therapist. A friend had suggested that we try the speech therapy programs offered by the Scottish Rite. We made an appointment for an assessment which turned out far worse than the first speech therapy encounter. This particular speech therapist took our son into a play therapy room while I remained on the other side of a one-way glass. Being a curious three year old our son wanted to wander around the play room to check out its offerings, but the therapist rather harshly ushered him to a table and chair, told him to sit down and plopped a toy cash register in front of him. She handed him three play coins and told him to insert the yellow one in the yellow slot, the blue coin in the blue slot and the red coin in the red slot. He looked at her and asked “Why?” She told him “Because I said so.” He told her that he wasn’t going to do that and proceeded to place the red coin in the yellow slot. A struggle ensued when he attempted to insert an offending yellow coin into the blue slot. She was clearly infuriated that he would dare disregard her orders. As I watched from the other side of the glass, part of me found it humourous that this “trained” adult professional was engaged in a tussle with a three year old over an arbitrary order (I was thinking that if she had said “please” my son might’ve obliged her request). But the silliness of the situation soon dissolved when this woman took my son’s hand, placed a coloured play coin into his fingers and forcibly made him place the coin in the proper slot and smugly telling him that this was the proper way to play with this toy. At that point I interrupted the session and we left the building. A couple of blocks away I had to pull the car over to the curb as I was crying so hard that I was having difficulty seeing – let alone driving. My son reached over, patted me on the arm and asked “Can we quit going to see these friends of yours? They are not very nice.” Of course, his insight and empathy made me cry even harder!

By the time we had returned home, there was a call waiting for us on the answering machine from the school district preschool special education program. Apparently the speech therapist from the Scottish Rite had contacted a friend at the district (without my permission) and suggested that they get in touch with me to arrange for assessments as my son was in desperate need of special services. At that point, I decided that since my young son as well as his older Jamaican physician both came to the same sage conclusion about speech therapy, I needed to heed their collective wisdom.We never pursued speech therapy again.

Life Without Speech Therapy

Our son is now 16 years old and has always been homeschooled. His once difficult temperament has subsided, the meltdowns have virtually been non-existent for a number of years and his speech is … well… his speech. He possess a unique dialectic blend of teen colloquialisms, Spanglish and normal everyday speech. This is not to say that my son’s difficulties magically evaporated based solely on maturation. Through the years I have come to realize that my son’s differences and quirks are indicative of Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning aspect within the autism spectrum. His greatest difficulty is delayed, rather stilted social skills and difficulty comprehending some figures of speech. Yet, as he matures, so does his ability to decipher social and communicative nuances.

Given our own experience, it is sometimes difficult for me when prospective homeschooling families ask how they can remove their children from the traditional school setting while still maintaining their special services (generally speech therapy). On one hand I can empathize with the family wanting to do what the experts have determined to be necessary for their child’s growth – yet on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how many of these children truly needed speech therapy in the first place. Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight as I can look back over the past 13 years when we “should have” had our son in speech therapy, opted not to and his speech is relatively ok without having endured the angst or cost. We did nothing special with our son other than to facilitate his interests (primarily reading) and to communicate openly with him. We have spent years virtually talking and listening to each other about anything and everything….. a lot of discussions regarding hypothetical as well as real-life situations have been very beneficial for him.

I know that as a parent it is difficult to make the decision to do “nothing” when a professional has indicated that something should be done. There are times when it is very necessary to follow the directives of mental health and educational professionals, but it is my opinion (and experience) that many “disorders” are best left to a child’s individual maturation time-clock or should a problem persist, at least waiting until the child reaches an age where he/she can actively participate and comprehend the nature of the intervention.

Speech Therapy Resource

However, I realize that not all parents are comfortable with waiting. Therefore whenever I am asked to direct homeschoolers to resources for speech therapy, I refer them to the local university communicative disorders clinic. Advanced graduate students, under the supervision of licensed professionals provide the therapy in these programs. These practitioners are involved in both research and clinical work; their primary concern is helping the child (or adult) and not making money. Most of the university clinics work on sliding fee scales, with some even accepting MediCal. I’ve known some families who had taken their children for assessments with private speech therapists only to be told that the needed interventions would take years and thousands of dollars. These families took the same children to the Speech and Hearing Clinic at California State University at Long Beach where therapy lasted a few months at a cost of a few hundred dollars (families on the high end of the sliding scale). These university based clinics can provide cutting-edge therapy with less anguish (and cost) than public school programs or private practitioners. Most importantly, the graduate students providing the services are professional and still retain a fresh view of the field and their abilities to help.

©1989. Lenore Colación Hayes, M.S.