Strange times it may be, but your child’s progress shouldn’t be a casualty when teleconsultations allow therapy to continue uninterrupted.
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HiDoc Pulse sits down with Ms Desiree Lau, a principal speech therapist who works with children with feeding and swallowing difficulties, as well as speech and language difficulties, to learn the best approach parents can take to help their child as well as the importance of continued therapy through teleconsultations.
What does a speech therapist do?
Speech therapists are allied health professionals who help people of all ages with their communication, feeding and swallowing difficulties. At Magic Beans Speech and Language Centre, Ms Lau assesses and manages feeding, swallowing, speech and language difficulties of her paediatric patients to help them communicate as best they can.
“The children whom I work with commonly have difficulties with their pronunciation of words, following instructions or understanding what is being said,” she explains. “It’s also common that they find it hard to express themselves, be it forming sentences, telling a story or recounting what happened at school to their parents.” These children might also have fluency disorders (such as stuttering or stammering) or have voice issues (e.g. having a hoarse voice).
A small group of infants and children also have challenges with feeding and swallowing, which definitely affects their growth. They include premature babies or normal babies with difficulties bottling or breastfeeding, fussy or picky eaters who are extremely selective in their food and children who have difficulties chewing. Through her role as a speech therapist, Ms Lau plays an important role in helping the children she works with reach their full developmental potential.
Continued therapy is crucial
But with the current COVID-19 situation, normal routines have been upended. Most parents are now working from home and their children equally confined to the home for their health and safety. Therapy services have, for the most part, also been disrupted. The restrictions on movement, while made for the greater good, present issues for children who have their speech therapy cut off abruptly. Why?
“Therapy requires consistency and frequency for it to be successful. With a long break from therapy, some children may regress or worsen. Progress made in the past may even be lost,” Ms Lau cautions.
Fortunately, there is a solution at hand. Children can continue with their therapy through teleconsultations, which involves the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide such services remotely. MOH has also recommended that “where possible, services that are suitable for tele-consultation should be delivered remotely”.
Teleconsultations improve access to care by removing physical barriers and providing parents with the right tools to support their child’s development. It’s also a great way for Ms Lau to stay attuned to the needs and progress of the children she works with. Therapy takes place over a secured channel, appeals to children who love to play with electronic devices, and offers convenience for parents as they have flexibility in scheduling their child’s session.
“Teleconsultations allow us to continue to provide therapy and intervention to children and their families. Teleconsultations also provide an accessible channel for parents to consult with me, with the aim of ensuring that therapy goals previously set will be continued, maintained and generalized in the home environment,” says Ms Lau. Teleconsultations have also been useful for parents who urgently require support at home. For example, families who have had difficulties feeding their child find the remote service very useful, since they can be guided by the speech therapist to improve the feeding or bottling routine with their child.
Worried that speech therapy through teleconsultations fall short of the “real” thing? Fret not. Online speech therapy services produce comparable outcomes to face-to-face therapy, according to international studies. Case in point: a study conducted by the University of Cincinnati and Kent State University on the efficacy of speech therapy services delivered via teleconsultations and conventional in-person therapy. The school-age participants of the study and their parents not only reported high levels of satisfaction with the delivery of therapy services via teleconsultations but also “overwhelmingly supported” it.
Early intervention is equally important
What is Ms Lau’s response when parents express anxiety over their child’s learning difficulties? “Parents do not have to face this challenge alone. I always advocate bringing in the child for early assessment. Timely intervention gives children who have some speech and language difficulties the best chance to catch up with their peers,” says Ms Lau.
Why is early intervention the best approach to take for parents whose children have such difficulties? “Early intervention helps to lay important foundational skills that set the child up for learning and future development. Parents are their child’s best educators as children learn through their day to day interactions with their families, Ms Lau explains. “It is important to empower parents and caregivers to learn how to best support and nurture their child’s development and learning in a positive manner. At the end of the day, parents are their child’s best educator.”
Parents should also speak the language they are most proficient in to their child. By doing so, parents are providing a good language model to best support language stimulation for their child at home. This is especially helpful because for a child with difficulties understanding, they might find it hard to follow their parent’s instructions or understand questions posed to them. Children with such difficulties may also find it too challenging to tell their parents about their feelings or describe what happened at school. Similarly, for children who have poor pronunciation, it is difficult to understand what they are saying, even for their parents.
Frustration because of difficulties in communicating their needs and wants may occur, resulting in the child throwing tantrums or crying as their needs are unmet. For children with feeding and swallowing difficulties, they may not be able to drink milk or eat solids adequately and this will affect their nutrition and overall growth. Mealtimes could become very stressful for both parent and child. The negative experiences that arise throughout the day may even put strain on the parent-child relationship.
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