What causes a Speech and Language Impairment?

 In Adult Therapy, Paediatric Therapy, Schools, Stuttering

here are various reasons someone may have a Speech and Language Impairment. It is estimated that approximately 10% of the population will have a Speech, Language and Communication difficulty. Some of the people that experience communication difficulties have other conditions which account for the Speech and Language Impairment. Examples of this are things like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome and Hearing Impairment. There are many more conditions that often have associated communication difficulties.

Conditions with associated communication impairment are estimated to account for approximately 3-5% of the population. The other 5-7% of people with Speech and Language Impairments have no obvious underlying causes for their difficulties. When we identify a person with a Speech and Language Impairment in the absence of any identifiable reason for it, many Speech and Language Therapists will diagnose this as a Specific Language Impairment (SLI).

If we accept the 10% figure as accurate, this means that in every school class of 30 children there will be approximately 3 with some form of Speech and Language Need. This already makes it the most common Special Educational Need encountered in our schools.

Unfortunately the story is not quite so simple. A lot of the time we are seeing more than 10% of children in our schools with Language and Communication Needs. Many organisations such as ICAN (The Children’s Communication Charity) have done their own studies in parts of the United Kingdom and found, in some areas, upwards of 50% of children are entering school with language levels below age expectations. Our own work in schools across London (where we have screened the children in their Key Stage 1 classes) have supported this data.

It appears there are a number of factors at play here. We know that language, like anything that grows, needs nourishment. If parents are unaware of their important role in supporting their children’s language development in the early years before school starts, this could explain some of the delay in language skills we are observing. Technology such as tablet computers, Playstation and Xbox could be another factor. Research is beginning to show that use of such technology prior to 3 years of age negatively affects social skills development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) provides guidelines that children under the age of 2 should not have any ‘screen’ time as it is detrimental to brain development. In any case, the solitary nature of such activities does not lend itself to the two way interaction process required for children to develop strong communication. Relatively established technology is now relatively inexpensive compared with what it was 20 or 30 years ago. TVs have crept into the bedrooms of our young children and, once again, this is a solitary activity that provides very little nourishing language stimulation.

Early exposure to books is an important predictor of later language success. Books are a fountain of vocabulary; vocabulary skills at age 4 can be used to predict later academic success. If parents do not have an understanding of the importance of reading stories to their children (without so much focus on the children actually attempting to read the words) this could be another factor leading to the increases we’re witnessing in Language Delay.

Possibly another factor may be something beyond our control entirely. Communication requires spaces that invite gatherings of family members/ people together to talk. But many modern flats and apartments are small and don’t have space for things like a dinner table. One of the main opportunities for families to talk to each-other is around a table at breakfast and dinner time. Without homes designed to encourage family time, we could be seeing a reduction of opportunity for interaction in our homes secondary to changing architecture.

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