Look Who's Talking: Speech Pathologists Transform Children's Lives

Speech pathologists transform the lives of children with autism and other challenges

“This little guy here wouldn’t start talking," says Donna Wagner, M.A., C.C.C./S.L.P., pointing to one of the pictures tacked onto her bulletin board. “Soon he started using two- and three-word combinations. Now he chatters with everyone — he practically runs this office!”

The patient was “a late talker,” a common problem treated by Wagner and her colleague, Tanya Verdoljak, M.A., C.C.C./ S.L.P. Both are specially trained speech pathologists at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital who apply research-based techniques when the words just won’t come.

But their frequent success stories aren’t without a few tears.

“These kids become like family to us,” says Verdoljak. “We see them for several months and become invested in their success. When they’re ready to ‘graduate’ from speech, it’s bittersweet.”


Beyond R's and S's

Many think speech pathologists work mainly with stuttering or pronunciation — “the R’s and S’s,” as Wagner describes it. But they treat a broad range of developmental delays and disorders, as well as the psychological-social issues associated with autism and other pragmatic (social) language difficulties. They also treat patients with a variety of complex speech, language, cognitive and swallowing disorders stemming from brain injuries, as well as stroke, cancer, degenerative disease and other neurological conditions.

In fact, the Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital Speech Therapy Department is one of the few general speech therapy providers in the region, serving both adult hospital inpatients and a large adult and pediatric outpatient population.

“I might treat an adult swallowing patient in the morning at the hospital, then go to the outpatient office to work with kids,” says Wagner. “I walk in with my lab coat still on, and the kids want to know ‘why are you dressed up like a doctor?’’’

Verdoljak adds that this connection to the hospital — seeing diverse, complex speech problems — only improves their work. “We love it. We’re always looking for new ways to meet the needs of our patients and their families.”


Hope for Autistic Children

One of the team’s most challenging pediatric cases involves Autism Spectrum Disorder, a range of developmental disabilities that cause significant speech and social problems, as well as inappropriate or extreme reactions to surroundings. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability (one in 100 births), and its causes and cure continue to elude researchers.

However, research shows that with early intervention by a speech pathologist, two out of three autistic preschoolers can improve communication skills and reduce lifelong care costs by two-thirds.

Wagner and Verdoljak use baby sign language, songs, visual schedules and picture boards to engage autistic patients. Eventually, the hope is that the signs and boards give way to words, sustained eye contact and self-regulation.

“I believe speech therapy offers hope for autistic children. Some start out hiding under the table, not speaking — but then they improve,” says Wagner. “They can learn to communicate, though perhaps in a different way. Quality of life improves dramatically.”


"Next Generation" Technology

The same team helping kids discover their communication skills helps adults regain them. Their adult patients are usually struggling with a brain injury, stroke, or head and neck cancer — conditions that make it difficult to talk or swallow.

Allison Hoffman, M.S., C.C.C./S.L.P., a senior speech pathologist in the department, received additional training (as did Wagner and Verdoljak) required to operate an advanced VitalStim® machine called Experia,™ which uses deep, non-invasive neuromuscular electrical stimulation to aid in swallowing. Experia™ is a technology that delivers a wider range of modalities to enhance neuromuscular stimulation. The machines allow patients to watch themselves swallowing, which enhances the therapeutic effects.

“Until recently, we were the only hospital in Illinois that had this equipment,” says Hoffman. “When you can augment proven traditional therapies with cutting-edge technology — that’s a tremendous benefit for patients.”


Tips for Parents and Caregivers

The causes of speech problems aren’t always clear — parents are usually doing everything right. But keep these tips in mind:

  • Learn child development milestones. At 18 months, children should speak several single words.

  • Keep talking, using simple language. Donna Wagner, M.A., C.C.C./S.L.P., says, “Drive yourself crazy with the sound of your own voice.”

  • Read and sing to your children and label objects in their world.

  • Remember that young children learn from repetition.

  • Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend television for children under the age of two.

  • Be wary of the claim, “he’ll talk when he’s ready.” If you have concerns, contact a speech pathologist for a screening.

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