What is Speech Therapy for Toddlers?

The truth is...it's NOT about speech

Every parent wants their child to talk, and believe me, every speech therapist desperately wants them to speak as well.

But the truth is, speech therapy is not really about speech.

As an early intervention speech therapists, there is nothing more special to me than hearing a child’s first word. I get goosebumps every time. My voice hits a new octave as I squeal for joy and fight back the tears. 

More than the word itself, I feel moved by the sound of the child’s voice as they use their voice for the first time. Often the child’s voice is soft and airy as it is a muscle that has not been used consistently. I imagine this is what an angel’s voice would sound like, sweet and melodic like a wind-chime.

For some families, it may be months of therapy before an accurate, meaningful word is heard. The wait can feel unbearable, and sadly, for a few rare cases, the day of the first real word may not come. There is no way to tell if a child will be verbal or nonverbal and if they are determined nonverbal at one point by one daring professional, there is no actual proof that they will always be nonverbal. I frequently tell parents to “keep the faith” and, in the meantime, focus on communication rather than speech. Perfecting one form of communication may bring on the following form.

On the other hand, some children may learn to use verbal speech but will not use speech to communicate with other people effectively. For example, I’ve met parents who tell me, “My toddler knows trapezoid and all his letters but doesn’t say ‘Mama.’ What’s going on?” I hear and see this often. The problem is that the child is talking but not communicating. Usually, the child names things when presented with them, like “Trapezoid! Hexagon! Pentagon!” but does this while staring only at the items and not paying any attention to the people attempting to interact with them. Also, the child may not answer a simple question like, “What is it?” even though they know it’s a trapezoid. Some children only name the item when they want to and don’t understand the question or show any desire to share the information or experience with anyone socially. They are talking but not communicating

Talking is not the goal of speech therapy. Wait, what? Why?

Think about it. What good does knowing the word “hexagon” do for a toddler’s life? “Hexagon” doesn’t meet any of their needs. Much more common and valuable words would be words like “Mama,” “Milk,” or “Cookie.” The word “hexagon” communicates nothing but the name of the item. Children usually haven’t learned to use this type of word other ways like to ask for the item or to ask where it has gone. This is a communication problem. The child’s brain has not developed the skills of using words beyond label items, and a speech-language pathologist should be consulted. 

Please know that if your two-year-old doesn’t know “trapezoid” and other such complex vocabularies, don’t worry because these are not typical words for toddlers or even kindergarteners to know! Children at-risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder often have a particular interest in shapes, colors, and numbers. They may name items compulsively but don’t use the words communicatively, as I explained above. Please see my video series “What is Autism” if you have not already. This brings me to the topic at hand.

Speech therapy should really be called communication therapy.

Speech therapy is not about learning to talk; it’s about learning to communicate. Communication includes gestures, vocalization of feelings through simple sounds (like grunts, laughs, sighs, and cries), and maybe even picture communication at some point (look for a future blog on picture communication). Think about it… even adults with functioning, verbal abilities use these different modes of communication every day. We use gestures like pointing, waving, high-fiving, thumbs-up, and clapping. We vocalize our feelings through simple sounds, like giving a big, exaggerated sigh to a friend when she asks, “How was the DMV line?” We even use pictures to communicate. Have you ever used an emoji or sent a GIF? That’s one form of picture communication. These are all ways to communicate. Often, the toddlers I meet are not using multiple modes of communication when it could be helping them communicate more effectively. If they are using them, they are not using them often or appropriately. Most commonly, the children I meet with a speech and language delay use pointing and crying, or unfortunately, hitting to get their message across. These non-verbal communication methods can be frustrating for both the child and parents.

If you and your speech therapist can teach your child to communicate, which you can, then your child’s whole world can change. Once your child realizes they can gesture or sign for “milk” rather than throwing a tantrum and that it gets them not only the milk faster but also positive attention like hugs and praise from their parents, wow, just wait! You are going to have a whole new kid on your hands. (Look for a future blog on sign language, and don’t worry because research shows children can learn speech along with sign language). Your child needs to understand the power of communication. That doing THIS gets them THAT and in a more rewarding, more straightforward manner. Once they get this concept, verbal speech is usually right around the corner. I’m so excited for you on your journey with your speech-language pathologist, and I can’t wait to hear the stories of how your child learned the power of communication.

Check out Susan’s story. Their parents of a 17-month-old and found help through my online course.

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