Speaking up for those needing help

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When Roy Hodgson was officially announced as the new England football manager, one national newspaper decided to poke fun at his speech impediment rather than comment on his chances of success in the forthcoming Euro 2012.

It provoked widespread backlash, but, interestingly, comedian Jonathan Ross, who shares Hodgson’s difficulty with the ‘r’ sound, defended The Sun’s front page, saying it was just a joke.

For those who do suffer from speech or language difficulties, it is no laughing matter.

Most speech impediments will resolve themselves by the age of eight, but some children require a little extra help.

In Northamptonshire, there are 34 speech and language therapists and assistants who work with children and their parents.

Children can be referred to the service by anyone who is concerned about their speech, including parents, GPs and teachers.

There are currently more than 5,000 children receiving support, an increase on the 3,600 at this time last year.

Speech therapy isn’t about elocution, but about helping children who struggle with certain speech sounds, or have difficulty communicating at all.

Nicci Harvey, a speech and language therapist based at St Mary’s Hospital in Kettering, said: “Speech sounds are usually acquired in a specific order.

“We have a checklist which indicates whether or not children have the specific sounds they should have.

“The earliest speech sounds are those you can see on the lips, such as ‘m’ and ‘b’.

“Sounds that come after are the ones where the tongue does all the work because you can’t see that.

“There are an awful lot of things that can go wrong.

“There are umpteen muscle groups that need to work together to produce speech, and it is only when it goes wrong that people realise we just take it for granted.”

Nicci says boys are more prone to speech difficulties than girls.

“The majority of our caseload are boys.

“They are very physical and like to go off exploring.

“They tend to do a lot rather than do the talking, unlike girls.

“But fast forward 30 years and who runs the country and does all the talking? Men.

“They soon catch up.

“We see little girls because their language has taken off so quickly, but their elocution has fallen back because they are so keen to talk.

“Our principal role is to advise parents. We have to be able to facilitate parent interaction with their children.

“We cannot be with a child 24/7 and a half-hour or hour session in a clinic is not enough.

“It is our job to find the level the child is at and help parents bring that on at the child’s pace.”

Speech impediments are not learned, but it is not clear why some children develop them and others don’t.

Nicci said: “There has been a lot of debate about the dummy because the tongue can’t move up and down. The majority of parents are very sensible and the children only have a dummy when they are sleeping.

“Our concerns are when a child is talking around a dummy, but the dummy debate is a bit of a red herring.

“Speech is probably the most complex thing that we learn to do.”

The speech and language team deal with a huge variety of issues, not just difficulties with pronunciation of certain sounds but often trouble communicating at all.

It could be due to something like ear, nose and throat problems, which affect a child’s breathing and, therefore, his or her speech.

They also work with children with cochlear implants, premature babies whose lungs might be underdeveloped, children with cleft lip and palate, and children with autism.

Nicci said: “Not speaking is a huge thing because speech is what separates us from other creatures on the planet.

“Our job is all about creating opportunities for a child to communicate.”

She added: “I love my job. It is a huge privilege to be able to help little ones to be able to communicate.”