Acquiring speech is one of several important milestones in early childhood that paves the way for achieving other benchmarks in cognitive and social development. Playing well with others, expressing emotion, rationalization and impulse control, reading and writing all have roots in a child’s ability to speak and be understood. For special needs children, however, speech can be a particular challenge. In addition to cognitive and motor skill delays, many special needs babies and toddlers experience hearing difficulties which compound an already difficult endeavor.
Watching your child’s frustration at being unable to connect and communicate with others can be heart wrenching. If you’ve begun to despair that you’ll never have the joy of hearing those first words reach out of the silence and embrace you, don’t lose hope. There are some very basic things you can do to encourage language acquisition from early on that will set the stage for success and eventually, bridge the gap from silence to speech.
1: Start Early
IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) mandates that children diagnosed with special needs receive early intervention services. For many babies, including those with Down syndrome or similar diagnoses, this support should begin at birth and include speech therapy. For more information about IDEA and exactly what the federal grant mandates your state should provide, visit here. Many states have early intervention programs that can support you and your child from birth to the age of 3, when most children enter programs within the local school system. Even if you feel like you probably won’t need it, secure early intervention services anyway. You may find you are struggling with feeding issues you didn’t anticipate but these are in actuality muscle and motor difficulties that will make language acquisition challenging. The sooner you get help, the better off you’ll be in the long run!
2: Breastfeed if You Can
There is some evidence that breastfeeding has benefits, specifically for those with Down syndrome, to strengthen the muscle tone and jaw. However, the lack of muscle tone and jaw strength is also what makes breastfeeding so difficult. Catch 22. Before you attempt to breastfeed your special needs baby, arm yourself with support, resources and trustworthy information. Check out this site, which provides a community forum and a vast treasure trove of informed, medically sound articles on breastfeeding. Also seek out the lactation consultants at your local hospital. Many times, this type of expertise is available to you well beyond labor and delivery. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t stress. There are still exercises that your physical therapist or speech therapist will share that can supplement the benefits of the breastfeeding experience for new babies.
3: Speak Up!
Talk. Often. As if your baby understands. Not baby babble but calm, comfortable conversation. The kind you’d have with a friend. There is plenty of evidence that simply being surrounded by speech promotes quicker language acquisition. So keep up a running dialogue at the grocery store and make eye contact at every opportunity. Let your baby see your lips moving and be close enough to feel your breath, to start to hear the rhythm of language before they understand the lyrics.
4: Encourage Non Verbal Communication
Your toddler or preschooler is stomping feet, pointing, and doing everything they can with their body to let you know what they need. Honor that communication by responding to it even if it’s not verbal. Many kids actually create their own sign language or act things out to help them communicate. If you understand the method that your child regularly uses to communicate their needs, then let them continue utilizing it. The key here is to ensure that you make eye contact, withhold the item or assistance until you supply the word and each and every time encourage repetition. The emphasis here is that finger pointing, eye contact, babble or even sign language is a bridge to speech not a supplement for it. It takes time and intent but it’ll be worth it.
5: Picture This…
One the main devices therapists consistently use in early childhood to promote speech are visual cues. It’s easy to incorporate this into your home environment in a myriad of ways. Clip art schedules, illustrated social stories that ease transitions, picture cards in the kitchen and bathroom to help caregivers understand needs can all transform frustration into calm. Just be sure the cards also contain the written words for whatever is being pictured and that when the visual cue is used, you respond with the spoken words and encourage repetition. Again, this is a bridge to speech, not a supplement for it. For some wonderful free printable cards, visit here. And for an enormous collection of illustrated social stories, most of them free, visit this website.
6: Read, Read, Read
Start early and immerse your child in language. Many parents wrongly assume that because babies can’t speak, they will be disinterested in books. Even newborns appreciate being surrounded by the warmth of your arms, an engaging visual display of colors and your soft, rhythmic, familiar voice. Research suggests that starting reading activities early on for children with Down syndrome can be especially beneficial and will quicken language acquisition. If your child isn’t enrolled in an early childhood program, consider doing so simply for the benefit of reading instruction. IDEA funding supports that children with special needs receive this type of instruction in an appropriate preschool setting.
7: Focus on Milestones, Not Age
Don’t get discouraged by the delay. I know. It’s one thing to say it and another to feel it. You have friends or relatives with kids the same age and they’re walking and talking. But your situation is different. The best thing you can do is focus on milestones. Take a look at this helpful chart that breaks down average age for various benchmarks for children with Down syndrome. Breathe. Focus on simply progressing. You’ll get there, one sound at a time.
If you found this article helpful and you’d like to learn more about early childhood challenges and special needs strategies that really work, consider attending the 321 eLearning conference. Register here and reserve your spot today.