By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Krystal Earls’ son Teddy was 3 when she started to worry about his language skills. Tests revealed no hearing or developmental issues. He just wasn’t speaking clearly.
“It came very fast. He almost had a whole other language when he spoke,” Earls said. “I understood everything he was saying, but I knew others wouldn’t.”
Teddy’s pediatrician suggested he meet with a Riley Hospital for Children speech pathologist at the IU Health Methodist Medical Plaza Eagle Highlands clinic on the city’s Westside.
The results have been amazing, Earls said, as she watched her son work on vocabulary and language skills with speech pathologist Lauren McKinney.
“His progress has been great,” Teddy’s mom said. “He loves Miss Lauren and enjoys coming to see her.”
Teddy’s enthusiasm is on full display at his weekly session with McKinney, whom he’s been working with since August.
Now 4, Teddy’s vocabulary has grown, but more importantly, he’s learning to string words together in short sentences. By age 3 or 4, kids should be combining three or four words together to communicate, said McKinney, who holds a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing sciences and a master’s in speech language pathology.
“I got it!” Teddy had just snagged a fish in a fishing game using a toy pole with a magnet on the end. He is engaged, excited and exercising his improved language skills without even realizing it.
McKinney explains to a visitor that the game is a reward for answering questions in between snagging colorful fish.
“He’s working on object function, and that’s a vocabulary-building activity. We’ll take a break, use the iPad to work on questions, then come back to the game. It’s a reinforcement activity.”
Other activities include working with Play-Doh and reading.
“I got a green fish,” Teddy squeals.
“One more, Teddy, then we’re going to look at the iPad.”
The questions are easy enough, but the goal for Teddy is to process what McKinney is asking, look at the pictures, then find the right word for the answer.
“What do you wear, Teddy?”
“A shirt,” he exclaims, pointing to a picture of a shirt.
“What do you use to talk?”
“And what do you read, Teddy?”
“Great job, buddy,” McKinney says.
Back to the fish game they go.
“I turn it on,” Teddy says. “I love your words,” McKinney encourages him.
“Even though we’re playing the fish game, we’re still working on language indirectly,” she said. “Teddy is working on building his vocabulary, sentence structure and using pronouns like he, she, they, and also working on plurals, adding that s to the end of words.”
When he first started therapy, they focused more on receptive language skills – understanding and following directions, she explained. Now he is working on both receptive and expressive language.
“He’s made a lot of progress with receptive, so we’re focusing more on expressive language – using words to communicate,” McKinney said. “When he started therapy, he wasn’t using a lot of words. Sometimes he would use what we call jargon – he’s saying something intentional but not using true words. And he was frustrated because of his difficulty with communication.”
Sometimes with language delays, there is no root cause, she explained. Some kids just need a little more support, a jumpstart, as in Teddy’s case.
Direct intervention, coupled with parental reinforcement of skills at home, has made all the difference for Teddy.
“I’m very proud of him. And his mom is awesome,” McKinney said. “She follows through with all of my recommendations. That’s what helps his progress – if the parent is learning from you and then implementing the same thing at home in the best way they can. She does just that.”
McKinney, who has been with IU Health for a year and a clinician for five years, is currently seeing children from ages 20 months to 13, but the Westside Riley clinic treats kids from birth to 18.
Her entire time with Riley has been during the COVID pandemic, so masks have always been required, which can be challenging, she acknowledged, though see-through masks are available when necessary. In Teddy’s case, he is working on language, as opposed to speech and articulation, so it’s not as much of a barrier, she said.
As Teddy talks about the hearts and cookies he is making with Play-Doh, McKinney has to occasionally get him to slow down and speak purposefully. But she is delighted with his progress.
While he had a decent number of words to get by when he started, his ability to put words together to communicate has greatly improved, both mom and therapist agree.
“He’s where he should be now,” said Earls, who works with her son everyday on the exercises McKinney recommends.
Before long, McKinney expects that her young patient will be ready to “graduate” from therapy before starting school.
Riley’s comprehensive Audiology & Speech Pathology program is designed to help children achieve a better quality of life by identifying, assessing and managing their speech, hearing and related problems. Find out more here. https://www.rileychildrens.org/departments/audiology-speech-pathology
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com