New Speech-Therapy Tools Make Practicing at Home EasierJune 16, 2014
Speech therapy for children is becoming a do-it-yourself project for parents, thanks to a host of new technology tools and medical devices.
According to one study, as many as one in four children struggles with a speech or sound disorder at some point during childhood. Not only do these issues cause anxiety among parents, they also weigh heavily on budget-strapped school systems.
Until recently, the standard treatment involved having a child sit in a therapist's office, sometimes with a few other children, drilling sounds on flashcards for 30 minutes a week. Progress was sometimes slow and not always certain.
Now, some companies have brought innovations to this notoriously sleepy and low-tech field in hopes of accelerating success for children and relieving school systems of some of the burden.
In some areas, "there have been huge caseloads and fewer clinicians available, says Joseph Donaher, the academic and research program director for the Center for Childhood Communication at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Technology may allow clinicians to reach more children who need services."
The new tools are aimed mostly at children with easier-to-treat problems such as articulation, which can show up as a tendency to say "wabbit" instead of "rabbit," for example.
Articulate Technologies Inc. of San Francisco sells "Speech Buddies," a set of hand-held tools that children can use to determine where their tongues need to be to produce hard sounds such as "S," "L" and "R." The tools look like Popsicle sticks with a special tip on one end.
For the "r" sound, the tip is a wound-up coil that must be unrolled with the tongue in the same way that's needed to make the sound. Children can do this with the help of a parent (or therapist) and know that their tongue placement is correct, the company says. They can also chart their progress online.
Michelle Groen of Frankfort, Ill., says the tools have helped her 12-year-old son, who struggled for years to pronounce the "S" sound. "People would say, 'Put your tongue here, no put your tongue there,' and he was so frustrated," she recalls
She attributes a big part of her son's recent success to the fact that he can now practice the sounds at home, when he wants.
"I used to have to be right on top of him, looking in his mouth," she says. Now, "he can be much more independent."
The SmartPalate System from CompleteSpeech, meanwhile, uses biofeedback to guide students to proper tongue placement. The system consists of a custom mouthpiece with sensors that capture tongue-to-palate contact. Students have an impression of the mouth taken by a dentist; the firm then creates a mouthpiece that can be connected to a computer to show tongue movement in real-time.
The full system can cost as much as $3,000, so until recently it was mainly used in speech therapists' offices, says Dan Smith, the Orem, Utah, company's chief operating officer. (The patient buys the mouthpiece separately.)
This year, however, the company launched a student membership program for $89 a month that allows parents to lease a SmartPalate System. That way, Mr. Smith says, children can practice at home, in between therapy sessions.
The iPad, meanwhile, is quickly replacing flashcards as a speech-therapy tool.
An app from Constant Therapy of Boston uses brain-rehabilitation exercises designed by scientists at Boston University to create tasks for students with communication difficulties. Students can download the app, work on their own and chart their progress. The app has been free for about a year, but will soon cost new patients $19.95 a month, the company says.
Articulation Station, an app from Little Bee Speech of Mapleton, Utah, offers six activities to get children to practice sounds in words, sentences and stories. The gamelike approach records the child's voice and then plays it back to him or her. The company recently launched an app called Articulation Test Center to help assess whether a child needs speech therapy.
"Flashcards are boring at home," says Mr. Donaher in Philadelphia. "These tools help engage a child by making practice more fun and flashier with more bells and whistles."
Not for Everyone
Still, some speech therapists warn that these and other tools won't work for everyone. Colleen Worthington, director of clinical education in speech language pathology at the University of Maryland, stresses the importance of an accurate diagnosis and input from a speech language pathologist.
"Technology is a wonderful tool for facilitating work on speech goals outside the school setting," she says. "However, you could frustrate a child if you aren't hitting the right solution."
Indeed, knowing what is normal development and where a child might need more help can be difficult for parents.
To that end, PresenceLearning of San Francisco recently launched a free online screening tool called KIDinsight that parents can use to determine if a child's speech is progressing normally. It takes some of the "stigma and doubt" out of having a child assessed, says company co-founder and co-chief executive Clay Whitehead.
If a child is off track, PresenceLearning offers parents a free consultation to determine what to do next. The company also employs remote therapists and gives parents the option of scheduling online treatment sessions for their children.