Researchers from Penn State’s College of Medicine have discovered that using sign language in conjunction with intensive speech therapy may provide better results for children with apraxia.
What is Apraxia?
Childhood apraxia occurs when a child has trouble producing individual sounds or words due to the inability of the required muscles to function effectively in a coordinated motion. It is classified as a motor speech disorder. While muscles are involved in the process, it is not caused by paralysis or weakness of the muscles. Rather, it is because the brain has difficulty telling the appropriate muscles to move in the desired way. The tongue, lips, and jaw are not being told what to do effectively, even though they are able to physically perform the movements. Children are typically diagnosed at around age two and a half, and then have the condition confirmed after age three.
In the case study cited by the Penn State researchers, the child was diagnosed at 18 months. This is significantly younger than average and early intervention has long been established as an important component of success in speech therapy. This child was taught sign language as a method of communication as his ability to communicate verbally was developed. This is the first study of its kind to focus exclusively on the use of sign language as an alternative form of communication in conjunction with speech therapy.
There has been some concern in the medical world that teaching a child with a speech disorder to use sign language would somehow slow their progress in learning to use their voice. However, prior research indicated that it is truly an effective method of reducing frustration and encouraging verbalization.
This patient was given intensive speech therapy to develop muscle control and develop sounds. The mother was given a home program to improve the child’s control of tongue movement. Prior to treatment, he had minimal communication skills. After the treatment, he was able to have conversations with his parents, who were able to understand a majority of what he was saying. As the patient’s verbal abilities increased, he slowly began to discontinue the use of sign language on his own.
Sign Language at Home
The researchers believe that the use of sign language at home was key in the rapid development of the child’s communication skills. Because it was used in conjunction with intensive speech therapy, the child was able to learn to communicate freely with those around him while developing the requisite muscle control to then translate those skills into verbal communication.
The researchers have proposed further studies to better understand the role of early intervention, sign language, and speech therapy in this and other early childhood speech and language disorders. However, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest the inclusion of sign language in the speech therapy regimens of some children going forward.