Speech and hearing

Speech ­— even in this age of social media — is still humanity's most important means of communication. The spoken word is the way the vast majority of people on our planet express their wants and needs.

But for some, verbal communication can be challenging.

For children who are struggling to communicate verbally, failing to adequately and coherently express themselves can be incredibly frustrating.

Fortunately, the inability to communicate, and the frustration that goes with it, can often be overcome with the guidance of speech therapists who help children tackle early speaking hurdles. Sometimes a speech issue can be quickly solved, and words begin to spew forth from a child’s mouth like a wellspring. However, for other children, particularly those with developmental difficulties such as autism or Down syndrome, it can become a years-long process.

For children struggling with these issues, there is help in the form of people like Jayna Greenfield, speech-language pathologist and assistive technology consultant with ARIN Intermediate Unit 28.

Tap the resources

Greenfield works within the school system to support children who have complex communication needs. Many of the children she works with have special needs, including autism and Down syndrome.

Most of the students Greenfield works with are quite limited in their speech, to the point they're either non-speaking or nearly unintelligible. After working with the student and teacher to determine the barriers preventing the child from being successful in the classroom, she develops a personalized plan to improve the student’s communication abilities.

“We will keep trying different plans until we find what the student responds to,” Greenfield says.

Once they pin down the communication system that works, Greenfield moves to find funds to support the program, which often includes bits of technology. Also, Greenfield provides school staff with the training to use those communication tools.

Communication concerns are important enough that the month of May has been set aside as Better Speech and Hearing Month by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), a time to highlight early identification of speech and hearing issues. The goal is to raise awareness for speech, language and hearing problems, and encourage parents to seek help if they need assistance in these areas. If parents see such issues in their children, they should take action in order to prevent long-term problems.

Greenfield reiterates the importance of identifying speech and communication issues. She advises parents to work with their pediatricians early on if they believe there is an issue, or call a state agency to help make an evaluation. Information can be found at Asha.org, including how to identify the early signs of a communication or hearing disorder and how to get help.

In Pennsylvania, Greenfield says there are some excellent resources available, many of which are free of charge to parents. From birth to age 5, speech services are free through the state. Thereafter, public school systems provide the services.

“Any child can get help if they need it and qualify for it,” she says.

Protect your ears

In addition to speech, Greenfield says hearing loss is also a significant concern. While hearing loss can result from a genetic or medical condition, many causes are preventable. Risk factors for noise-induced hearing loss include how close you are to the noise, how loud the noise is and how long you hear the noise.

“It’s really important to protect your hearing,” Greenfield says. “Hearing prevention is something that is applicable to everyone. We all need to be vigilant about that.”

Greenfield notes that noises at 85 decibels or higher can lead to hearing loss. However, many people who consistently use earbuds to listen to music have the volume turned up much higher. Those earbuds can go as high as 120 decibels.

For parents, Greenfield says there are several things they can do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. One thing is to investigate noisy toys small children play with. Many children like to hold the toys up close to their faces when the sounds are going off. She says parents should remember they can remove batteries from such toys, or put duct tape over the speakers to muffle the sounds.