An Advocate for Early Intervention

A speech-language pathologist jumps in to help a toddler learn to speak

The two-and-half-year old only knew five or six words. But he understood most of what people said to him and communicated often, by grabbing at his mom, dad and fulltime caregiver’s hands and pulling them to what he wanted.

“Typically children his age have about one hundred words down,” says Bethesda, Maryland, speech-language pathologist Jennifer Gaum, who worked with the boy because his parents recognized that he had significant language delays.

Knowing the signs of communication disorders in children and intervening early are the best ways to ensure they’re getting the therapy they need to learn to communicate and meet their developmental goals at a pace that works for them, Jennifer says.

“People don’t realize ‘Oh, my baby’s looking at my face, that’s communication!’” Jennifer says. “Your baby is communicating with you. It starts almost from birth.”

When parents see warning signs, as Jennifer’s patient’s family did, they can recognize when babies aren’t communicating, and get them the help they need.

ASHA’s new Identify the Signs PSA for Better Hearing and Speech Month. Coincidentally, Jennifer’s house came up as a site during a production unit’s search for one for the PSA. A promotion of the importance of early detection, the PSA was filmed at Jennifer’s house in April.

During her initial assessment, Jennifer observed how the little boy would interact with his surroundings and the people in them. She also figured out his favorite playthings. Meeting with him once a week, she brought her son’s old toy dinosaurs, cars and racetracks. She made obstacle courses out of cardboard tubes the boy’s family collected during the week.

“We’d put words to what we were playing with,” she says. “The goal was to just get him to talk.”

To keep track of progress, Jennifer summarized their sessions in writing for his parents, listing the words and phrases the boy had learned and used, like “horse run,” so his mother and father could see the improvements for themselves. She also modeled for the caregiver how to use play to stimulate his language.

Jennifer would also leave his parents and caregiver resources on different activities to do with him, reminding them to make language simpler when reading to the boy and telling them not to worry too much about the exact words on the page.

“Ask him questions, give him choices,” she advised.

In the few months Jennifer has worked with the child, he has shown substantial improvement. Like other two-year-olds, he is beginning to put words together into short sentences and able to answer simple questions such as “Do you want to play with trucks or dinosaurs today?”

Jennifer has also encouraged the boy’s parents to apply for free services from their county’s early intervention program for infants and toddlers.

Now, the boy is taking on preschool. Though he still has a language delay and some difficulty pronouncing certain words, Jennifer hopes his skills will improve in an environment where he is surrounded by peers and educators who can help foster his development.

And because his parents realized he had a speech disorder early on and quickly sought out speech-language services, he’ll have the tools to grow and continue improving his communication abilities. Jennifer hopes other parents can learn to do the same.

“The earlier you identify a need or a problem, and can provide services and remediate the issue for [your] child, the better,” she says.