I am asked frequently, “When should my child start speech therapy?” This is a great question! Usually parents are asking, “Is my child old enough to improve how they sound when they talk?”
Many times infants or young children with Down syndrome (DS) will start language therapy at before speech therapy. There is a difference between the two types of therapy, although we commonly refer to visits with a speech-language pathologist as “speech therapy.”
Children with DS typically have delays acquiring speech sounds and words (Stoel Gammon, 2001). The process of gaining sounds in children with DS goes like this*:
- Early infancy: cooing
- Mid to late 1st year: babbling
- 18 months: average 1st word
- 36 months: combining words into phrases, using common phrases with multiple words like, “I did it!” or “1, 2, 3…go!”
Providing children with DS language-rich experiences during the early years of life will not only support learning, but also speech development. Activities that nurture communication include:
- Reading books together. Don’t worry about reading every word on the page. Take time to look at the pictures with your
child. Comment and let them show you what’s interesting to them.
- Engaging in turn-taking games. Roll a ball back and forth. Play peek-a-boo. Alternate between peeking and allow your child to “peek” too.
- Playing with toys that start/stop manually like rolling cars down a ramp or a jack-in-the box. This allows natural opportunity for you each to take turns as you play together.
- Singing songs with hand motions like Itsy Bitsy Spider or finger plays such as “Open, Shut Them.“
- Being silly together. Children pay attention when adults behave in ways that are unexpected. In my sessions I place toys on my head like a hat and then say, “Ah – ah – ah – Chooooooo!” sneezing them into my lap. It’s usually good for a laugh AND the child tries to imitate my actions and sounds.
While clear speech is important, it’s equally important to allow opportunity (and time) for sounds to develop. Therapy goals targeting speech sounds and clarity are appropriate when:
- The child has a variety of spoken words or approximations
- He/she consistently tries to imitate sounds you make
Most children with DS are in preschool or kindergarten when goals for articulation are established. Until then, therapy focuses on the child’s ability to understand and use words and gestures to communicate.
Three of my favorite resources for early communication are:
1. It Takes Two to Talk from Hanen
2. Communicating Partners, by Dr. James McDonald
3. See and Learn Language and Reading from Down Syndrome Education International
When did your child’s therapy start to focus on speech sounds? I’d love for you to share your experience in the comments section.
*Ages represented are averages for children with DS as reported in research literature. The range of acquiring first words in children with DS is very large!