What causes speech delay? That question came up recently for our guest writer today, fellow SLP, Candace Hayden, M.A., CCC-SLP. Candace is a current, practicing school speech-language pathologist. Thanks for joining us today Candace!
Yesterday I was getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist when the hygienist found out that I’m a speech therapist. Like a lot of people, she wasn’t exactly sure what a speech therapist does.
Hygienist: So, you help kids with their speech?
Every SLP knows that’s a loaded question because after taking not one, but several college-level courses defining the word “speech,” it often means something different to us than it does to other people.
Me: Yes, I work with kids who have trouble making their speech sounds. And also kids who have a hard time using language overall. Also stuttering. I even work with some kids who use pictures and iPads to help them talk.
(Clearly I’m trying to capture the whole, vast scope of being an SLP in a 30-second sound bite before I have to keep my mouth wide open for 30+ minutes. Being the language expert that I am, I should probably polish that response!).
Hygienist: Oh, you know, my friend just told me that they figured out speech impediments and stuff are caused by parents not talking to their kids when they’re little. Is that true?
Me: ……. Um, no… There’s not always a cause.
I was taken aback, to say the least. All I could think about were the sweet children that I work with, their parents who care so deeply for them, and what it must feel like to hear that or wonder what causes their child’s speech delay.
Now, I know that studies do show that kids who are talked to less, have poorer language skills. Households who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table have extra challenges. They may not have access to high-quality daycare programs, babysitters, or enrichment activities to provide a language-rich environment for their children. Overuse of screens and technology without interaction can impact language and social skill development.
Those things happen. Thankfully I live in a country with free public education so we can try to give every child an equal footing. I know education is a work in progress, but is, at the very least, free and available.
But no, when my hygienist asked that question, all I could really think about were the children who come from homes where they received every language development opportunity you could hope for. Children who are born neurologically, cognitively, or physically different, through nobody’s fault or actions. Children whose parents work extra jobs so they can afford all the therapies, programs, and camps to help their children succeed to their maximum potential. Or, children whose parents have to put their careers on hold because caring for their child is more than a full-time job in and of itself. Children whose parents have to learn the complicated intricacies of special education and speech language pathology – things I had to get a Masters degree in, and I still don’t know everything!
I am a mom of two kids myself. That comes with deep love and lots of worrying. I feel all the mom guilt when things don’t go like I hope and plan (and I’m a Planner). It can be a struggle for me to keep up with their extracurricular activities, both in terms of time and money.
I feel so much empathy for the parents of my students who have special needs. I know they must feel all that I feel and more.
In the past, mothers of Autistic children were (falsely!!) told that autism was caused by a lack of maternal warmth when they were babies, known as the Refrigerator theory because the mothers were cold towards their babies. Imagine being told that your precious child has a diagnosis you were not expecting, and on top of it, it’s all your fault.
So, when my hygienist asked her question, yes, I was taken aback. (Side note: I did give a slightly more elaborate response to try to dispel that myth. But, I was also in a hurry to get the appointment over with so I could get back to work.) I thought we were behind blaming the parents. I thought it was a relic of the past.
But if it’s not, I’m here to tell the world: Parents, you did not cause your child’s speech or language impairment. What causes speech impairments? What causes a language disability? It could be a lot of things, or it could be nothing in particular. We don’t have all the answers, but we know it’s not the fault of caring, loving parents.
So, this post goes out to all the parents out there who work so hard each and every single (thankless) day to give their child every opportunity to succeed. You are amazing and have my deep respect. Autism is not your fault. Stuttering is not your fault. A lisp is not your fault. What causes speech delay? Not you!
If your kids can’t quite say thank you for all that you do, just know that an SLP is working with them to give them the speech, language, and pragmatic skills so they can express their appreciation to you some day!
SLPs can help your child, but they can help you too. We know this is a team effort. The more we can all support your child, the better the outcomes will be. We’ll try to give you the tools you need to have valuable experiences with your child. But, let us know what we can do to make this work for your family!