Who are children with special needs? Children with special needs (CWSN) are individuals who require additional care and help to maintain a high quality of life. CWSNs can be kids with developmental delays, congenital conditions, medical conditions, and/or psychiatric conditions. The special needs can be physical therapy, special cognitive learning activities, medical attention and care, and speech therapy.
Today, professionals categorize the conditions and disabilities of CWSN into four categories –
- Behavioral or emotional
The categorization helps children and their caregivers provide optimum care, treatment, and therapy on time.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) or speech therapists are trained health professionals.
They can help in the assessment, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions and/or disorders that demand special needs.
Often, there are telltale signs that a child requires speech therapy.
Can Speech Therapists Help Children With Special Needs?
Role of speech therapy for special needs children is often misunderstood. Early intervention in the case of most developmental conditions or disorders can help a child acquire necessary language, communication, and social skills. Children with speech, learning, and/or language impairments benefit from regular speech therapy. SLPs or speech therapists work with children and their parents. Speech therapy in many scenarios is provided as part of special education programs or individualized education programs (IEP).
Here’s what you can expect from sessions with an SLP or speech therapist for your child with special needs –
1. Oral Motor Exercises
Some children face problems controlling and coordinating the muscles that move the lips, mouth, tongue, and jaws. Speech therapists can teach you and your child oral motor exercises that help in strengthening those muscles. It is especially helpful for children with Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and dysarthria.
Regular practice can help your child become more aware of the movements, strength, and coordination of the muscles involved in speech production and swallowing. It is not an overnight process. It will take immense patience on your part and practice on your child's part to be able to produce coherent speech sounds.
2. Sign Languages and Gestures
Some children find it challenging to acquire spoken language. If your child has severe signs of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, non-verbal autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or dysarthria, they may benefit from learning sign languages and gestures to communicate.
Sometimes, these are as simple as pointing and head nodding. They may also gradually learn parts of a sign language (such as ASL or American Sign Language) to communicate their needs. The speech therapist can help children with special needs learn the most commonly used gestures and signs.
Sign languages and gestures can also be a temporary communication method before a child with special needs can acquire spoken language.
3. Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA)
VOCAs are electronic devices that generate speech. It allows children to "speak" using pre-recorded snippets, computer-generated speech, or both. Your speech therapist should be able to guide you while choosing the right VOCA for your child.
Children can use a switch system, touch screen, or keypads to generate speech for communicating.
4. Picture Communication Symbols or Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
This system allows children to communicate using simple picture cards. These can be physical, or digital picture cards.
With the help of a trained SLP, your child with special needs can learn to use simple icons and pictures. However, they can rapidly advance to build sentence structures to generate functional communication systems.
5. Phonation and Articulation
In several developmental conditions, children have trouble articulating their speech. In addition to the oral motor exercises, the SLP will work with your child on target sounds, words, and phrases.
They will teach you and your child speech therapy exercises for articulation and phonation. Depending on the severity of your child’s symptoms, it can take anywhere between a month and a year for them to show improvements in spoken language.
6. Swallowing Techniques
Sometimes children with special needs require a little help in learning how to swallow without the risk of choking. The condition is known as dysphagia. It is common in children with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. However, it can also be a result of brain injuries (TBI), cerebral stroke, or brain tumors.
A speech therapist can teach your child exercises to improve their chewing and swallowing process. These techniques for children with special needs typically include swallowing maneuvers, improving jaw & tongue strength, and head positioning techniques.
7. Speech Fluency and Resonance
Some children have problems controlling the loudness of their voice due to hearing impairments or voice disorders. The SLP can guide you through the evaluation process and refer your ENT (ear-nose-throat specialists) for a complete checkup of your child’s hearing abilities and voice health.
Additionally, the speech therapist will teach your child easy tricks to control the volume of their speech.
8. Mental Health And Behavioral Therapy
Most SLPs will not provide psychological counseling or behavioral therapy to your child. However, they do have the training to assess whether your child needs these services.
They can refer you to child psychologists, psychiatrists, and behavioral therapists who can help your child and family.
We must never forget that every child with special needs is unique. No two children with ASD or cerebral palsy will have identical symptoms; people often have a hard time discerning autism from speech delay, autism from down syndrome, or autism from dysfluent speech.
It is crucial to consult healthcare professionals to address their physiological issues and assess their limitations. At the same time, you should get in touch with an SLP or speech therapist to address their communication and language needs.
Caregiver burnout is a real concern in many cases. And there is no shame in feeling worn or tired after attending to your child's needs all day. In such cases, you may want to talk to a psychological counselor or psychologist to fulfill your emotional needs.